Employability & the Role of the University

Should universities teach students how to find a job? Are employment skills a necessary requirement for higher education to deliver today?

photo by micn2sugars

photo by micn2sugars

With so many new graduates each year, employers are spoilt for choice on who to give a job. If a company wants to recruit graduates, it’ll have no difficulty. If a company wants to recruit graduates with specific skills, the choice may be more difficult.

It’s like with A-levels. Universities find it increasingly difficult to work out which students to give offers to, because so many A-level students are receiving good grades. More unis are asking for at least one A* grade to help identify students of the highest calibre. But what happens when this grade fails to identify anything useful? And is this still a reasonable and effective method of finding the most able students?

There was a time when simply ‘being a graduate’ was enough to help you stand out from the crowd. Securing employment wasn’t as tough, because there were fewer graduates in the same position. Regardless of actual ability, having a degree was a notch above many.

Yet today, with so many graduates in the mix, employers look for more than a grade. Even a First at a prestigious university isn’t enough to grab whatever you desire.

Where does that leave you upon graduation? Should universities be responsible for ensuring a certain level of competence or employability before allowing you to graduate?

I’m not convinced it should be obligatory.  As a place of learning, university isn’t solely about business and career.  And it’s not possible to attain a particular level or type of ’employability’.

For instance, Boden & Nedeva highlight differences between Anglia Ruskin and Oxford:

“It is likely that local interpretations of notions of what makes graduates employable would be different for the University of Oxford and Anglia Ruskin University. The University of Oxford website does not contain an employability statement but, despite this, Oxford graduates are widely regarded as highly employable. Moreover, education at Oxford has not been changed in accordance with the employability agenda: broad-based knowledge and cultural capital are still the currencies that students accumulate.”
[Employing discourse: universities and graduate ’employability’]

Despite this, I believe students should be assured the following, whatever institution they attend:

  • Guaranteed availability of assistance and preparation for life after graduation if a student should request it;
  • Continued support from careers services, including a more detailed and personal service in some cases;
  • Clear information & explanation on improving employability and transition into work;
  • Before going in to HE, give students awareness that a degree is not an automatic passport to a job or career;
  • Give those pre-HE students guidance on the alternatives to university, along with general pros and cons to each.

I’m uncertain who would be responsible for supplying the resources for the last two points…universities, schools, government department, outsourced…?  But it is necessary.  Harriet Dunbar-Goddet at 1994 Group makes a simple, yet entirely valid point:

“Information is not enough, prospective students also need advice and guidance on how to make use of it.”

Any number of tools can be offered to students, but it counts for nothing if there is little awareness and an inability to make proper use of those tools.

In response to Harriet’s point, I said that it’s like being given all the separate components to build a car and then being expected to build it yourself with no fuss. You’d recognise some of the parts, but they would mean nothing in isolation.  There is similarity in this:

“As Tomlinson (2007) points out, students nowadays no longer anticipate a clear link between their merit in education and its reward in the labour market.”
[Less time to study, less well prepared for work, yet satisfied with higher education]

A selection of courses at some universities allow a year in relevant industry. This helps many graduates stand out both on their CV and in terms of actual experience, which is often lacking upon graduationBullock et al, say:

“Our study confirms other findings that an extended work placement enhances the likelihood of a good degree and preferred employment. Although the sandwich model preferred in this university is not perfect, the perception shared by students, academics and employers is that benefits outweigh drawbacks.”
[‘Work placement experience: should I stay or should I go?‘]

Even if work placements and generous employability support are provided by universities, is it enough?  A recent paper by Hinchliffe & Jolly examines broader knowledge, identity and well-being as possible keys to greater employability. They look at a more holistic approach whereby students focus not solely on employability, but on the bigger picture:

“Our studies suggest that universities and government would be better employed promoting student employability indirectly through the promotion of graduate identity and well-being (through the provision of opportunities for functioning) rather than directly through employability skills.”
[Graduate identity and employability]

Given the issues discussed above, it’s no wonder that a degree doesn’t automatically result in magical employment.

Boden & Nedeva are concerned that matters go beyond employability. Is higher education in danger of giving too narrow a focus to learning when it should be giving a wider perspective?

“Universities should be the critical friends to civil society, enlightening, informing and engaging, as part of their service. The growth within universities of pedagogical approaches based around the ‘delivery’ of ‘teaching materials’ in a narrow set of ‘skills and competencies’ bodes ill for the execution of this wider public intellectual role. This, we argue, is perhaps the most alarming of implications.” [Source]

And the take home point?

When you identify any goal, career or otherwise, strike out using your own initiative and find who and what can help you around your own actions.

Whatever your university has to offer, take responsibility for your future. Look beyond the grades and beyond the reputation of the institution.  Look to yourself and what you have to offer.  It’s often a lot more that you think.


  1. This article perfectly highlights the issues of students and graduates in today’s job market.

    I work for an organisation called ‘Bright Futures’ who deal with just that. We are the largest student society in the UK in over 30 universities. We strive to improve the skills and awareness of students during their university days to make employability easier and make them stand out from the crowd. And with over 300,000 students graduating each year, you really do need to stand out somehow!

    The society is run for students by students, which makes it a very unique peer-to-peer way of development. Each society holds events to give their members exposure to potential employers and what they want from their graduate intake. They will also learn new skills along the way and how to identify them, like networking, communication, team work, management and organisational skills, etc, along with the basics, like how to create the best CV and how to succeed at interviews and assessment centres.

    All of these events are delivered in new & innovative ways to engage their market and give real value to their members.

    Having been through the whole process myself; setting up a Bright Futures Society in my university, running it and engaging my members with a varied host of events, and then ultimately being employed by Bright Futures themselves; I have seen the value it brings and the impact it makes not only amongst the students wise enough to get involved but also the employers who take on the students. Now I get to help students go through the same processes I did whilst I was at university and enable them to get where they want to be! It is hugely rewarding and something I am tremendously passionate about – my dream job!

    You can find out more about Bright Futures and how we can help you at http://www.bright-futures.org.uk or contact me directly at jackie@brightfuturesresourcing.com

  2. Sorry for commenting on this so late, Martin, I’ve been away but I can never resist a debate about ‘employability’.

    I suppose the facetious thing to ask is why do universities need to encourage employability among their students? Have the been producing unemployable students up until now? Of course not, so why employability now?

    Are employers struggling to find suitable graduates? Well, given the remarkable increase in young people graduating from higher education this would seem unlikely. In fact, it is more probable that the opposite is the case. There are now so many graduates chasing fewer jobs that ‘employability’ is presented as a way of gaining competitive advantage over your peers. And as the previous enterprising commentator from Bright Futures has clearly spotted, there’s money to be made in that racket.

    More generally employability does a number of things, some inimical to education: first of all it further entrenches competition in education between students; secondly, it reinforces the notion that unemployment is a personal failing and not a systematic one; thirdly, it encourages a culture of compliance in education rather than analysis, criticism and experimentation – students become more concerned to do the ‘right thing’, the generic thing, rather than push the envelope a little.

    In any case, most universities have a careers office, where students can get professional advice on everything from how to present a CV to interview techniques to information of the availability of various careers. How does all the contemporary waffle about employability improve on that?

    1. The compliance in education (and beyond) is what shakes me. Doing the ‘right thing’ as you say, doesn’t mean anything because there is no ‘right’ way.

      Rather than wait to be told what to do next, I encourage people to step up themselves. To push the envelope doesn’t mean intense effort to breaking point. A bit of self-drive and consistency can go a long way.

      But people do need to understand where they can go and how best to develop. While you’re right that careers offices have a wealth of generic advice available, there is always scope for more detail. Some services have in-depth, personal discussions and a range of additional facilities. Other services don’t have the right setup or (alas) funding. This is rarely the fault of the staff working in these offices.

      Employability is just a word. It has no set value or specific meaning. Even if every university was obliged to teach students employability skills, whose fault would it be when graduates still found it hard to find employment? I doubt there would be any ‘fault’, but there’d suddenly be much opportunity for people (and institutions) to blame anyone but themselves.

      Assisting transition is fine, as is clear information and advice. Indeed, they should be encouraged. Employability, on the other hand, is difficult territory. Too many variables are in play to give it proper grounding.

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