Parallel tracks? (Higher) education for employability and intellectual development

Updated: I enjoyed speaking today about the Wilson Review alongside Trudy Norris-Grey at the Westminster Briefing event on graduate employability.  One interesting question from the floor followed up on Trudy’s comments about the mismatch between the skills developed by students at university and those needed by employers.  What did she think higher education was for?  By way of explanation, the questioner suggested that universities were trying to do many different things at the same time, and that maybe the development of employability skills and intellectual capacity were two such parallel tracks.  (I don’t quote her exactly but hope I have captured the essence of her contribution.)

I thought this was an interesting perspective and one that is often raised in discussions about the role and purpose of higher education as preparation for the world of work.  But can we see employability and intellectual capacities as overlapping domains rather than parallel tracks?  I’m interested both from a research and from a teaching and learning perspective in the skills and cognitive capabilities history students learn through their academic training.  Is it the case that those skills and capabilities are separate from, and therefore need to be supplemented by, employability training?  Or is it that it’s difficult to recognise and articulate the ways in which they have value and applicability in both academic and work-related contexts?

It may be that a mix of both is required, but I wonder if we do enough to help students really engage with the processes of academic training and the implications for their future careers.  Can we ourselves explain well what that training is equipping them to do, whether it’s history, philosophy, life sciences or economics?  I put down these initial reflections in one of the ‘thinkpieces‘ we wrote as a way of getting going on the Wilson Review.  I hope that the spirit of trying to see past potential dividing lines (such as between employability and academic training) came through in the final report.

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2 thoughts on “Parallel tracks? (Higher) education for employability and intellectual development

  1. Really interesting Alix. I’ve always though that the right approach is employability through the curriculum, not employability in the curriculum – i.e. the way in which you experience your university education through teaching, learning and assessment makes you employable. What is all too often called employability in the curriculum is more often than not, actually, career management skills. I remember discussing employability with my students, HE staff on a Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in HE a few years ago and being torn off a strip for peddling “neo-liberal nonsense to serve the means of capitalism which undermines the purpose of a higher education”. I’ve learned now to include debates from Aristotle, Adam Smith, JS Mill, Bentham, Newman about the purpose of a university education – development of an independent, critical mind that can make a valuable, learned and good contribution to the society that individual belongs to. Doesn’t sound too different to employability to me. Of course, we could have another debate about what a “valuable, learned and good contribution” is – another blog maybe?

    • Thanks for the comment! It’s interesting from a historical point of view that there’s such a resilient sense of the ‘original’ purpose of HE (being very much detached from the world and from contexts of application). But looking at the history of the discipline of history and of universities (at least in England), you get a clear sense of purposes outside academe. I’m particularly interested in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century understandings of the democratic imperative behind the study of history – this is for me a basis for approaching the idea of thinking with history in public policy.
      My view is that the detachment of academic history is not a foundational idea but rather a historical phenomenon. In the 1940s, C. V. Wedgwood condemned ‘the greater number of historical writers,’ who ‘failed entirely to understand what was expected of them. They turned their faces away from their audience and towards their subject, turned deliberately from the present to the past’.
      As Anderson notes, many of the civics that are now members of the Russell Group were founded by local elites not as ivory towers but as ‘embodiments of a modern, utilitarian, scientific spirit’. They were to be truly tertiary institutions, the pinnacle of a rationalised local education system. We need to understand the question of the purpose of HE as a historical one, and resist the temptation to make judgements about HE today against an idealised, imagined past.
      I really like the way you use the idea of a ‘valuable, learned and good contribution’ to link academic study to employability – which also points to the congruence between the ‘skills’ that academic study produces and those that employers say they want from graduates. Shall we co-author that blog about what such a contribution might be?

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