Student success and employability

Employability is now serious business. Governments ask about employability outcomes and rankings depend upon it. 'Disruptive' start-ups raise millions of dollars to fix student employability. The assumption is because employability should be measurable, measuring it is the best way to understand if education has been effective.

That assumption is wrong. This is simply because there are many dimensions of employability outside the educators' control. The assumption of a flat-world job market, with skills and wages working as a pricing mechanism, is wrong. Wages are almost always inflexible, even in a non-unionised workplace; there is always minimum wage, but more importantly, organisational structures limit the level of flexibility. Employability is also shaped by implicit bias, of the employer or the society at large, which sets expectations based on race, gender, age, sexuality, physical appearance or accent. Students are also not completely mobile: They may prefer lower waged jobs locally than travel elsewhere to find jobs based on their skills. In summary, all those various structural factors that come in the way of the perfect economics of 'full employment' play a role in employability. Indeed, the reverse is also true: Students who are in the right place at the right time, with the right ethnicity and accent, may fare better regardless of educational effectiveness. Therefore, though employability may be measurable, it may not adequately reflect the impact - or the lack - of education.

But I also wish to talk about something more - about shifting student expectations. We may assume that the employability statistic is a big thing and therefore, highlight it everywhere, but do the students really care? Some of the surveys that look at student priorities highlight that other things, such as 'quality of student life', often come at the top of the students' priorities, with employability down below at No. 6 or 7. One may assume that employability should count higher for the students' parents, but there too, quality and type of employment, rather than percentages of students finding jobs, are deemed to be more important: After all, for parents, its the type of job his or her progeny will get matters most. True, jobs become more important to students as they mature and many students, who have not had the right career advice early or did not have a professionally successful relative to look up to, think about jobs and careers only in the final year (when it's too late to find the right internship), but even at that stage, it's not employability that floats their boat.

I have spent a lot of time at the frontline of education-to-work transition and my views are informed by the conversations with students I have had along the way. I have come to recognise that every student is different - why they have pursued the particular education they have pursued and what they wanted at the end depend on their unique personalities and life experiences. All of that is hard to encapsulate within a single metric, let alone in a pointless percentage figure of students in jobs or an average starting salary. But if something must be measured to benchmark success and get a sense of educational value-add, there is something which can act as a proxy, applicable to most students that I have met.

At the end of studentship, as the time of transition draws nearer, all students are anxious. The type of anxiety is different: Some will worry about returning home (with UK Home Office breathing down their neck), some will think of getting the right employment, some are thinking of moving in with boyfriends or girlfriends or about getting married. What success looks like, from this vantage point, is about greater control over their lives. Employability, and the financial independence that brings, is a part of that equation, but that's not the whole story. Also, employability, where life will mean abject servitude in a hostile workplace (which is the reality for many students across the developing world) is hardly conducive to this sense of being in control; rather, this is its opposite. It is this measure - do you feel being in control of your life - that indicates student success more correctly than aggregate figures such as employability.

This is indeed a pretty obvious point, but no one wants to measure it. This is a qualitative measurement, but we measure far more complex stuff all the time these days. Besides, educational institutions have a unique privilege of having access to all the data one may need to construct such measurements. Also, the educator has far greater control over the students' levels of confidence in self-control than their employability outcomes, as they are responsible for creating most of it. Employability is a dumbed-down proxy that misses most of the details such a measurement of student success will contain. And, indeed, this would go a long way improving the educational experience, even if such measurements are not shared in the public domain.


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