Employability, Tragedy and the Meaning of Life

The day after the PESGB seminar on entrepreneurship and the performing arts, I attended an education research seminar at Queen Mary on engagement with employability and graduate attributes. The seminar was given by Finola Farrant, a lecturer in Criminology at Roehampton, and for me it raised plenty of juicy questions of the type that are likely to arise in my conversations, the first one being – what is the problem that ’employability’ is the answer to? 

This question – along with most of the others I scribbled down during the session – is chewed over fairly comprehensively in the HEA’s recent report – Employability: A review of the literature 2012 to 2016. So I’ll bring the two things together if I can.

Citing Kettis et al. (2013) and Rich (2015), the HEA report describes a fault line ‘between those who argue that higher education’s primary purpose is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and those who argue that higher education serves a research and development function for the country along with the development of a skilled workforce’ (p13).  The research and development agenda (as promoted by CP Snow in his 1959 Rede Lecture The Two Cultures) was no doubt a major influence on the 1963 Robbins report and the subsequent expansion of higher education. The skills-shortage argument can be questioned, particularly in terms of this expansion. Is it true, for example, that there are lots of vacancies for criminologists that cannot be filled due to a lack of suitably qualified candidates? Here’s another question I wrote down in the seminar:

If we imagine a highly employable person, what are the skills or attributes that makes them employable? Are highly employable people taught these attributes at university? Could they be?

I felt these were important questions that were glossed over at the QMUL event. I’ve recently been reading Baroness Alison Wolf’s 2004 book Does Education Matter, which questions whether the skills employers are actually using and looking for are those gained at university (rather than those gained at 14, 16 or 18, for example). Wolf argues that the skills most wanted by employers are ‘the ability to read and comprehend, write fluently and correctly, and do mathematics’ (p37) – traditional academic skills that are taught at school, and – it could be argued – that all those headed to university already have.

The HEA’s 2013 Framework for embedding employability (which features heavily in the 2015 report), describes and defines employability in terms of key aspects (p10):

  • confidence, resilience and adaptability;
  • experience and networks;
  • attributes and capabilities;
  • specialist technical and transferable skills;
  • knowledge and application;
  • behaviours, qualities and values;
  • enterprise and entrepreneurship;
  • career guidance and management;
  • self, social and cultural awareness;
  • reflection and articulation.

The Government’s 2015 Employer Skills Survey seems to support the theory expounded by Wolf – that the skills employers are finding in short supply are those that are supposedly learned at school – numeracy, literacy, time management, etc. – as well as specialist and operational knowledge that is best learned ‘on the job’. While the survey findings have been used to argue for greater state investment in vocational education, they surely provide a better argument for employer investment (in apprenticeships, traineeships, etc). Their relevance to higher education seems debatable.

As an aside… it’s the glaring, unacknowledged contradictions in reports like these that cause me to reach for the salt when digesting their conclusions. For example, the report presents a concern about under-utilisation of skills, which apparently ‘represents not only a waste of individuals’ talent but also potentially a missed opportunity for employers to increase performance and productivity, improve job satisfaction and employee well-being, and stimulate investment, enterprise and innovation.’ (p8). But the most common reason given by employers for such under-utilisation was that staff were not interested in taking on a higher level role; i.e. they made a personal choice in the service of their job satisfaction and wellbeing. We are dealing with people here, not machines.

Back to the HEA report – which cites Speight et al. (2013) in reporting that some see the employability agenda as a threat to disciplinary learning. It is this aspect of the ‘fault line’ that intrigues me and is the foundation for my thesis. I’ll nail my colours to the mast – I’m still right up there with Pádraig Hogan, defending the intrinsic value of education – but I’m happy to acknowledge that the other side has a point, albeit a secondary one. I went to university in the first instance both because I liked learning and it was a prerequisite for the kind of work that I thought would suit me best. Embarking on an MA and then an EdD was prompted by a similar motivational blend (and a pretty standard one at that, I guess – to survive and be happy?).

In their report, the HEA argues that it is possible to combine the two viewpoints through careful revision of the employability agenda to integrate academic and employability learning, and cites Rust (2016) in claiming that many people operate somewhere between these two poles (something I’m curious to discover through my institutional conversations). The report offers the following definition:

‘Employability in higher education (HE) is about preparing students to become workers, citizens, community members and lifelong learners.’

It could be argued that universities have many responsibilities to the young people they take on – and this broad description touches on several of them. But the statement in the HEA report that universities have a moral duty to educate for employability on the basis of student investment and expectation of improved life chances does not sit comfortably with me. For me, a more pressing moral imperative is to curb the excessive inequalities in society that validate such dubious statements (another suggestion in the report that really irked me was that universities were partly to blame for the financial crash of 2008, by not producing graduates with the right skills). I don’t want the life chances of graduates to be ‘better’ than those of non graduates. Different, yes – but not better.

The consensus presented in the report (citing Cole and Tibby 2013) that employability is about meaningful participation in society rather than simply getting a job is all very well, but ‘meaningful’ is a difficult word. Let’s google it:

  • Significant
  • Relevant
  • Important
  • Consequential
  • Worthwhile
  • Purposeful

…see where this is going? When we describe an action as ‘meaningful’, we acknowledge it is a means without commenting what it is a means to, i.e. a specified end or purpose.

In a recent interview, the philosopher David E Cooper had this to say about ‘meaning’: “I don’t think we should just ‘muddle through’ and ignore the question of life’s meaning. Or better, perhaps, I don’t think it is a question that can be ignored once the business of asking about the worth and significance of what one is doing – one’s work, one’s pleasures, one’s ambitions and so on – has got going.”

So, there’s the rub… that’s my issue with the employability agenda, that’s where I think the fault line arises, and that’s why I’m with Pádraig. I want to live in a society where it is commonplace to interrogate the purpose of our actions; their worth, their consequences, etc. I would like that to be the foundation of employability education.

Here’s another question I wrote down during the QMUL seminar – it might seem a bit obtuse at first, this one, but bear with me:

Can we imagine a person whose employability attributes diminished through going to university?

This question doesn’t really feature in the literature as far as I can see; the assumption is that university increases employability; it’s just a question of how and by how much. But having had a rough time at university myself, and spent a year working as a resident tutor looking after others who were having a rough time, this is an issue I really care about. The transition to independent study and living can lead to problems such as a decline in mental and/or physical health, risk-avoidance due to stress of debt, substance abuse, etc. Personally, I found school and college pretty easy, but I really struggled to cope socially at university. I found living with other students intolerably invasive, and the expectation that I would make friends for life only increased the isolation I felt. Having alienated virtually everyone I met over the three years, I left immediately after my final exam to take up a job at the other end of the country. Getting the job was easy; it was a small educational publishing firm run by a guy who thought he wanted a bright, eccentric young woman on his writing staff.  But the fresh start I was expecting turned into more of the same, and again I failed to connect with people in an appropriate or normal way. I soon became acutely depressed and was fired due to erratic behaviour, ending up on Jobseeker’s Allowance of £46 a week. I struggled to get another job, and it took several years of temping and bar work (and the rest… better not ask) to put myself back together.

The thing is, I know I’m not alone in this. My experience as a resident tutor at Bath revealed how other kids struggled to adapt to university life, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Lots of them had a great time, of course – and that’s why it can be really hard to admit to having a bad one; you don’t want to rain on everyone else’s parade.

Looking at this from another angle, I now work in a specialist arts university, and I often stumble across the suggestion that angst, adversity, tragedy – even mental illness – can be the basis for great art. In another recent 3:am interview, my friend Richard asked philosopher Dennis Schmidt whether tragedy is ‘the perfection of the possibilities of art’. Schmidt responds, first citing Hegel and Nietzsche, that ‘if we are beings who are multiple and full of irreconcilable conflict, and if we are beings who make artworks in order to understand ourselves, then tragedy is at least “a” if not “the” perfection of art’s possibilities.’ Schmidt believes that the technological world has shifted the possibilities of art – perhaps in productive and creative ways but also in restrictive ways.

The last couple of questions I wrote down during the seminar sound mildly facetious, but they come from the heart:

In response to Roehampton’s Graduate Attributes, one of which is ‘Curious and creative with a passion for knowledge’, I wrote: How does the love of a subject and learning assist someone in a common graduate desk job? Wouldn’t it just make them more bored and frustrated?

On hearing Farrant’s own reasons for going to university (‘I wanted a job that was fulfilling, engaging and interesting, and hopefully offered me suitable recompense’), I wrote: If you have been fortunate enough to succeed at school and university and land a job that is fulfilling, engaging and interesting, what exactly is society compensating you for?

This last one really got me thinking. Other than increased competence and/or experience (productivity hmm), what are justifiable grounds for one person being paid more for their time than someone else? I jotted down a few ideas:

  • Unsociable hours – e.g. tube drivers
  • High-stakes (emotional stress) – e.g. surgeons
  • Low autonomy – e.g. factory operative

Why are graduates paid more than non-graduates, just because we got to faff around going to lectures, reading books, getting shamefully drunk on cheap beer and playing Ultimate Frisbee while they were putting in an honest 37 hour week? I just don’t get it, and it’s important, because the entire issue of HE funding and the public/private good debate hangs on it.

Farrant finished off her seminar with three questions for us to ponder, so just for laughs I’ll show you my responses:

Q1: What do you wish you’d known at the outset of your career?
A: That trying to make your parents proud of you is a futile, empty goal that will occlude and obstruct your own aims and desires.

Q2: What has been the most valuable advice you’ve received?
A: When things get hard, just keep breathing. Also, if someone asks you ‘what do you know about (x)’, never say ‘nothing’. Always say something.

Q3: How might you take forward employability on your programmes?
A: Now, there’s a question…

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