Friday, December 11, 2015

Three Dimensions of Employability

In the UK, the conversation about Graduate Employability remains, well, a conversation. Student loans are not yet biting, and graduate unemployment is still relatively low, when compared against its European peers. Underemployment and lack of job progression may be a bigger issue, but till the student loans become oppressive (they are income contingent at this time), they are unlikely to cause a crisis. But this is one thing to watch out for, as the student loan becomes more of an issue, the Government starts allowing differential fees for universities and starts selling student loan books at massive discounts. 

The government has published the Green Paper on Higher Ed, which has many ideas including the differential fees, but not many on Employability. Johnny Rich picked it up in his review in Times Higher Education and proposes that this should become an intrinsic part of Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). His view of Employability, very aptly, revolves around three things - Knowledge, Social Capital and Skills.

My own model of Employability also has three things, Skills, Information and Mobility (which handily forms the acronym, SIM, see post here). I came up with this looking at developing country markets primarily, which are often afflicted by uneven geographical development, and indeed, I was not thinking about only university-trained graduates in this model. However, this alternative model makes me think whether I should factor in Knowledge and Social Capital into my own thinking (though this would wreck the neat acronym).

I am sensitive about the different contexts of the discussion - my quest is to create an unified model which I can use in my work in developing countries whereas the current discussion is about a set of parameters that could be included in the TEF. So, while the Social Capital on one hand, and Information and Mobility on the other, have clear overlaps, one set of words is more relevant than others in their given context. Social capital is a capital, thing that grows with its use, and information and mobility, whether in the restricted geographical sense I saw it or the broader sense of reaching out that may apply, are outcomes that result from social capital. But, for me, information and mobility are easier to define and measure than social capital.

Now, in terms of model, everyone seems to be in agreement that skills are important, though it's meaning may vary. Skills for me was the all encompassing attribute, which included, in my list, the ability to learn and the ability to participate, and by extension, knowledge (or the ability to know). So, in the end, the question really is - what to do with Knowledge?

In the THE article that I cite above, Knowledge is taken as a given, 'the teaching of which is higher education's speciality'. Indeed, one can not talk about TEF without referring to Knowledge as important. But is knowledge a static thing that can be taught, or transferred, or it needs to be actively constructed? And, if we accept this dynamic view of knowledge, the constructivist position most people in adult education would perhaps feel more comfortable with, it is not the knowledge itself, but the ability to acquire knowledge that would come up as the most important. So, in contrast with Mr Rich's  proposition, it is not how much the student knows, but whether the student is able to learn (which, by itself, would guarantee that she knows) would determine employability. 

In fact, over-emphasizing knowledge in the employability equation can be dangerous. Knowledge is always of something, and it is implicitly related to the structure within which such knowledge is produced and used. Much of the knowledge that Higher Education specialises in is linguistic, within the context of Higher Educations own. Within the closed, bureaucratic higher education system, the knowledge that is most valued is the knowledge how the system works, and how language is used in Higher Education. Someone who knows this well, can be very successful in Higher Education, but mastery of such knowledge and excellence in one system can actively prevent success in any other system, including that of the world of work.


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