Designing Education for 'Employability': 1 Limitations

A large part of my work now is designing an educational programme that can sit alongside university curricula aimed at student 'employability'. We started this very predictably - with a mandate to ensure early preparation for the job market and industry connections - but as we assimilate various ideas and learn from experience, we know that we can't stick to the business as usual. 

By business-as-usual, I mean the mechanistic employability programmes that are now so popular. A degree does not ensure jobs any more. Besides, the governments across the world are paying more attention to student loan books than they previously did and holding universities responsible for employment outcomes. Hence, it's common to see training programmes that prepare students for job search, CV writing and interviews. 

There are clear limitations to what such training can do. These make two assumptions which are not necessarily correct: First, it assumes that the job the students will have eventually already exists and are being advertised; and second, they assume that the degree programmes adequately prepares the students for work-life and professional progression. But, in truth, automation, globalisation and shifting priorities of the governments and businesses mean that neither of these assumptions hold. 

The alternative, focus on soft skills, has its limitations too. When it comes to behaviour, it's hard to change it through a short training programme, particularly if this training is an extra, not the 'main thing'. Soft skills are hard, particularly because the behaviours the modern workplace demand are often anti-intutitive and neither school nor family life prepare the student for these. Take, for example, the ability to work effectively with a group of people from diverse backgrounds and skills: It runs counter to our inherent comfort with the familiar, our desire to be in company with people similar to us and the school's disciplinary environments that we spend most time in. Or, for that matter, thinking creatively and critically, which can help progress a career but at the same time, can be quite detrimental to family environments and within traditional assessment frameworks. 

There are also the practical difficulties. No university would want to accept that the students require sustained, long term training focused on 'employability': This effectively undermines the promise of a degree leading to good life that admission counsellors sell. A university has - and should have - other purposes, such as providing meaning in a world of information overload; a singular focus on employability can subvert the very logic why universities should exist (and why everyone should not go to a technical training school instead). Besides, many students - particularly those from rich and successful families with good GPAs - come to the university for social life, freedom and companionship; the employability focus can add to the stress and discourage such students from enrolling. Indeed, it matters a lot to the poor students without financial cushion, but our very model of academic excellence (and rankings) is built around the former type.

These practical difficulties are not just procedural. Modern universities are not secular temples of thought and contemplation, withdrawn from the real life. For the most part, they are very successful corporations, highly valued brands with a lot at stake, enmeshed in practical life and here-and-now concerns. It's not that they don't get employability: It's just that they get one type of employability so well and doing this is their core mission. University curriculum, methods and culture are perfectly designed to train a Professor - and that type of academic excellence is their core mission - and the whole system inside and around the university is geared to this one goal. This ideal is sustained by the modern middle-class opinion climate centred around meritocracy - a certain type of intellectual activity is considered more desireable than everything else - which promotes certain values and certain forms of behaviour. Therefore, it's incorrect to say that the universities don't get 'employability'; it is that they can't serve the needs of the businesses and present professions without becoming very different entities than themselves.

This, therefore, is the space we are dealing with. In our work, we want to go beyond the transactional and explore what 'employability' means, how it should be defined and measured and how this might fit around the life of a university student. As I mentioned above, we are seeing some principles emerging - and I intend to make these the subject of subsequent posts. 








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