62/100: Beyond Employability

I was at the launch of a new book - Blue Skies: New Thinking About The Future of Higher Education - on Monday the 23rd. This was about, as Rod Bristow, President of Pearson UK and the host of the event said, starting a debate on the role and future of higher education in Britain. If so, it was timely: In many ways, this is a time for existential crisis for higher education. In attendance were who's who in Higher Education, including the British Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, and Wendy Piatt, the Director General of Russell Group. There was some debate on the funding models and more discussion on where the Higher Ed is going in Britain. However, one thing everyone agreed on - education is for employability.

It is not so much of an issue if employability is one of education's goals, but it starts becoming problematic when this is perceived as the sole objective and everyone seems to agree on it. Particularly in the context of higher education, where a critical understanding of the world is central to learning, putting employability first invariably subverts that goal. Call it the cannibalization of higher ed by professional training or whatever, there seems to be an irreversible trend towards education as training, where the institutions must produce 'value for money' for the students and the outcome is solely measured in terms of pay-offs.

I would argue that this should not be as straightforward as this, and reducing higher education to training for employment is one of the reasons why there is so little focus on teaching in HE institutions these days. Indeed, training for employment is needed, but it has its own place and this should not be allowed to take over the higher education agenda.

Everyone must go to college is a middle class dream. Middle classes, indeed, center their lives on better jobs, and if a generation ends up earning more than their parents did, that's seen as progress. Education is widely seen as a tool to achieve this objective, and hence, education equates the search for employability.

But this means that the society should remain steady-state, which it does not. Knowledge is what makes it forward, and higher education is not just about delivering knowledge, but also to continue to create it in context. One can't move forward if the goals of a higher education classroom solely centers around getting a job equal to and better than the students' parents. In a way, imposition of employability as the sole objective subverts the purpose and corrupts the nature of higher education.

I have indeed nothing against employability, but feel that it should not dominate what is taught in HE classrooms. Being in Higher Education should continue to be the kind of complete, multi-dimensional experience it was supposed to be a few decades back. The training provisions should expand and service the middle classes, but not at the cost of reducing the degrees to technical certificates. The trend of reclassifying polytechnics as universities should be reversed, and some universities should be reclassified as polytechnics. The employers should be encouraged to work with polytechnics, which should then receive significant government support, but learners should bear the major share of the costs. This is indeed about a reversal of mass higher education, which is, in a way, neither necessary nor helpful for a society's growth. When you upgrade polytechnics to universities, you don't abolish polytechnics, you abolish the universities.

On that note, I stand directly at the opposite end to the current thinking about higher education, which is about expanding access while cutting costs. The model we have worked ourselves into is clearly unsustainable, and by moving from a grants based model to a fee based funding model, the government is threatening the survival of higher education in this country. One needs to find a solution - call the bluff of the ruling classes and accept that there is no way we can afford higher education for everyone as long as our priorities remain as lopsided.


very interesting post, and on an issue close to my heart.

there was a time i would have agreed with you wholesale. but, i have changed over a period of time.

i feel you theory is based on the tradional definition of higher education as resesrch and knowledge oriented. while i dont contest that, i disagree with your view on training. trainig should not be seen as separate from knowledge acquisition. the traditional divide with these two aspect of education is disappearing. true it's the changing milieu of the new emerging order that is causing it, and the way this is happening leaves much to be desired. but, i think higher ecucation is going thru the birth pangs of a new system where the integration of the polytechnics and the university is being managed in a sensible manner that answers the need of the hour.

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