I’ve just been having a look at an interesting paper produced by the HEA entitled Pedagogy for Employability. This was originally produced as a kind of series guide to the HEA’s Learning and Employability series.
The paper makes the point that, for higher education, it is not just the decision to focus on employability that matters, it is also the way in which employability is taught. As Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message” and so when we are teaching people employability skills it matters not just what we are teaching them, but also how we go about doing this teaching.
In addition to this the paper makes the point that it is possible to teach employability skills within the context of a subject discipline. In fact the argument is made that there is “no undue tension between a concern with good learning in a subject and an interest in promoting employability”.
Another important issue that is raised by the paper is the fact that the teaching of employability intersects strongly with students’ previous experience. So if we are teaching a mature student about their career they are likely to have a lot more to draw on (and potentially to overcome) than a standard 18 year old undergraduate. The pedagogies that we adopt in dealing with employability need to recognise this diversity of experience, acknowledge it and utilise it if possible. Similarly the context for employability pedagogies are changed as you move from liberal arts to science to vocationally focused educational contexts.
All of this discussion is very well but is doesn’t necessarily establish a curriculum of areas that employability teaching should focus on. One answer would be to ask employers and to base what goes on in higher education on what the paper calls their “wish lists”. However, the paper goes on to argue that employers are not necessarily consistent in their demand and frequently say that they want skills that their actual recruitment and management processes do not reward. Furthermore the creation of lists of skills can downplay the diversity of employers needs and fail to recognise that these needs are dynamic and ever changing.
However, why teach students employability skills? Surely the investment in their education that is made by higher education is sufficient to provide them with considerable advantage in the labour market. The paper argues that higher education does have considerable labour market returns, but that these are dependent on a number of factors including the institution attended, subject studied and a variety of the usual suspects (class, ethnicity etc). The argument is therefore made that supporting employability and transition to the labour market offers advantages in terms of social mobility.
If it is possible to improve graduates employability and doing so increases social mobility, then it is probably a worthwhile endeavour that HEIs should be engaged in. However, this paper does not suggest that a wholesale overhaul of the HE curriculum is needed (or possible). Rather it focuses on what individual programmes, modules or academics can do to enhance employability within the existing paradigm. The paper then goes on to frame the task of teaching employability skills in terms of an entitlement that students should be able to expect. In essence, students should be entitled to provision that contributes to their employability in three broad ways:
- fostering a continuing willingness to learn;
- developing a range of employability-related capabilities and attributes; and
- promoting confidence in reflecting on and articulating these capabilities and attributes in a range of recruitment situations.
Whether this can really be seen as a student entitlement is questionable, but it clearly offers some areas for action by educators who seek to develop their students’ employability.
The paper then reviews the kinds of educational interventions that can contribute to enhanced student employability. The following are suggested:
- Work experience
- Work-based learning
- Employability interventions that have strong connections to the academic curriculum.
- Holistic and experiential learning approaches that connect across the length of a programme of study.
- Group-based and peer based learning
- Generally positive experiences of learning new things
- Personal development planning processes
- Assessment of employability skills
One issue is that as we broaden the definition of what constitutes employability skills, it ends up encompassing almost everything. Reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic are all employability skills. So are talking, presenting, using computers and so on. Given that employability skills are everywhere there is a danger that academics get let off the hook and end up just ticking boxes to say that they do it all already. However there is probably an important second stage of metacognition and contextualisation whereby students are encouraged to see how their skills might transfer and fit into different contexts such as the workplace. Without this element, it is probably difficult to say that you are really delivering employability skills. At their best, PDP type processes can be one of the places where this kind of metacognition and connection building can take place.
The paper finishes up with an exploration of a series of case studies that outline some of this issues and set out some ways forward.
There is clearly a lot of debate about graduate employability in these times of increasing fees and economic challenge. This paper sets out some of the key thinking that HEIs need to do in this area. Where it has got to since the publication of the paper and where it goes next perhaps needs further thought still.