Why I don’t want my students to become “employable”

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Emma Kennedy on why student employability should be a starting point and not an end goal.

“Employability” has become an accepted part of the university’s duty towards its students: the recent Higher Education Green Paper and its proposed Teaching Excellence Framework promise to use the Destinations of Leavers in Higher Education survey – which records where people find work after graduating – as an indicator of teaching quality. We can’t escape the drive to make sure students leave university as employable as possible.

I’m not going to use this space to debate the (dubious) value of someone’s post-university work in indicating the quality of teaching – others have done it better than me, in any case. What I do want to examine is the word ‘employable’ and the role it implies for students. The suffix ‘–able’ implies a passive role: when something is foldable, it can be folded; when something is visible, it can be seen; when a person is biddable, they can be bidden. Describing someone as employable means that they can be employed. Not especially impressive.

Of course, employment isn’t a bad thing, and it’s not somehow vulgar to want to be paid enough to live – everyone has rent to pay, and the ‘do what you love’ philosophy tends to mask exploitation. That doesn’t mean, however, that merely being employed should be the limit of our ambitions for our students. Don’t you want to give your students at least enough to merit an active verb?

I want to give my students the skills to take ownership of their future; to think about what jobs they might want to do and do what they can to achieve their ambitions. I want my students to be not just employed but to do their best in that employment and – subject of course to the economy’s ups and downs – seek out opportunities that help them grow and develop. I want them to be active jobseekers and active employees, critiquing the world and changing it as they participate in it.

Well, you might say, so does everybody. That’s what employable graduates look like. Why so much fuss about the word? The fuss, in my mind, is because focusing on the passive employability leads us, too often, to focus on the ones who do the employing and what they want. In practical terms, this means that companies tell us what they are looking for in graduates and we aim to give it to our graduates – so that they become employable. When we close the loop like this, however, we shut out some valuable voices.

Firstly, the student voice. Do we do enough to find out from students what they actually know, what they want to know, and what they want to do with it? Lots of students do want graduate jobs, but they also want to be switched-on citizens with a global outlook, to contribute their skills to good causes (for money or voluntarily) and to have a balanced life as well. Not every student does extra-curricular activities simply to become employable – likewise, we need to recognise that the skills they want us to help them develop are not limited to employability.

Secondly, the voice of the academics. Academics are often told that their subject is, in and of itself, insufficient to make someone ‘employable’ – and so they need to add non-disciplinary ‘skills’ on the side, in order to add value to their disciplinary knowledge. Students aren’t stupid, though; if someone chooses to study English Literature, Archaeology or Drama, they’ve already accepted that they’ll spend most of their degree learning about things that won’t be mentioned in the average graduate scheme assessment centre. They’ve chosen these subjects because they have an appreciation for the discipline and a passion for it – and that’s something to be recognised and nurtured. If we take a more nuanced view of graduate attributes than mere ‘employability’ we can find plenty of attributes that disciplines give their students – and plenty of disciplinary wisdom that graduates can carry with them when we leave.

Luckily for us here at QMUL, the Graduate Attributes do just that. A lot of them probably do correlate with things that employers want, but they’re also broadly-phrased enough to fit in with discipline-specific, interesting activities that students can do without ‘rehearsing’ for future jobs. They also give agency to the students – and the large number of student voices show that students’ actions really are at the heart of this project. Listen to the videos, and think about how much farther you can take your students beyond the merely ‘employable’.

Emma Kennedy, March 2016