‘Employability, employability, employability’

In a 2001 speech, Tony Blair famously underlined his aim of getting more young people through higher education by listing his top three priorities for government as, “education, education, education”. Twelve years later, and with the recession having taken its toll on the ‘widening access’ agenda, political priorities for young people seem to be shifting.

The UK government has long sold the value of a university education on the evidence that graduates get paid more than non-graduates, but the figures have been criticised for being skewed by a small percentage of graduates that are on disproportionately high salaries.

It could also be argued that graduate salaries are higher due to factors outside of university; for instance, graduates may be more likely than non-graduates to have access to financial and professional support through their parents – something that can be particularly useful for breaking into certain industries, such as the media. The British public seems to agree that social status can be a key factor, with a recent poll indicating that almost two-thirds believe that ‘who you know’ matters more than ‘what you know’. 

Skepticism about graduate salary statistics, coupled with a rise in graduate unemployment, has driven the issue of employability into public consciousness, and, since 2007, Google searches for ’employability’ in the UK have doubled. There have been inevitable calls for more jobs to be created, but there has also been a growing argument – spurred by comments from recruiters – that educational institutions and their students need to focus on cultivating ‘soft skills’ such as those involving communication, teamwork, and assertiveness.

Last week, a Guardian live chat explored the ways in which the higher education sector is responding. According to the Work Foundation, the demand for soft skills is being ramped up by the shift towards a ‘knowledge-based’ economy. To address this, universities are increasingly looking to strengthen ties with businesses to create internship opportunities, promoting extra-curricular activities, and offering soft skills training and resources.

Entrepreneurship also continues to gain support within institutions, with recognition that, regardless of whether businesses are actually built, enterprise skills such as assertiveness and leadership are valuable to employers.

But as the employability agenda grows, there are some tensions. Whilst an emphasis on employability might benefit job prospects, there are concerns that the ‘corporatisation‘ of higher education will squeeze students down narrow career paths and detract from the pursuit of knowledge and personal development for its own sake.

Objections seem to be fading though, with Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Vice Chancellor for Robert Gordon University, recently writing on his blog that, “‘Knowledge for its own sake’ is no better as a pedagogical statement than ‘spinach for its own sake’ would be as a nutritional one”.