There is no buzz word that has known such a steep rise in the higher education lingo as “employability”. To put things in perspective: google “employability in higher education” and you’ll get more than 5.6 million hits. “Internationalis/zation in higher education” – that other hot topic – will only get you 2 million hits combined. If you are handing in a project proposal for EU funding, just add “employability” a few times and your chances of getting the money will go considerably up. This seems relatively logic. In the aftermath of the economic crisis, budget cuts force policy makers to question the return on investment in higher education and with youth unemployment at an all-time high, the role of higher education in this respect is high on every ones agenda. But is this really as logic as they want us to believe?
First: Is there an employability problem in higher education?
No. Compared to the other levels of education, higher or tertiary education (level 5 and 6) actually has a much better performance than all the other levels. In all European countries the unemployment rate among higher education graduates substantially lower than among non-higher education graduates, as shows this graph of Eurostat.
Secondly: Is higher education responsible for the current unemployment rate?
The unemployment among young graduate has known a steady increase since the outbreak of the economic crisis, especially in those countries most heavily hit. Higher education is not responsible for the economic crisis, so neither is it for the current unemployment rate. Or maybe it is somewhat responsible. One can only wonder whether the economic crisis would have happened if the bankers of wall street and the City, the captains of industry and the captains of politics all would have had basic ethics, sustainable development or community service learning as a course during their academic studies instead of yet another advanced economics subject… Would their greed, shortsightedness and poor risk assessment have still brought our economy to the verge of disaster? So maybe higher education institutions in the past have in fact been focusing too much on employability of their graduates and not enough on the responsibility…
But: Does this mean higher education should discard its role towards the labor market?
No. The question is not whether higher education is responsible for the employability of its graduates. Of course it is. The question is how to ensure this. Instead of adding employability aspects to the curriculum, higher education should do what is does best. The OECD Skills reports clearly show a growing need for graduates able to do two things: non-routine analyses and advanced information processing. Aren’t these the two elements which form the base of academic education? If higher education delivers quality, their graduates will be employable, even those that have studied philosophy or anthropology…
The most fundamental question around employability and higher education is this: do we need to produce a labor force that serves the market or critical minds that actually change the market… If we want the second, we shouldn’t worry too much about what the market wants but give the market what it needs: critical, flexible and responsible graduates, and the jobs will follow…
It is therefore time to shift the discussion around employability from the current labor market oriented approach towards an understanding of employability that is actually valuable for higher education:
- Understand that your students will with high probability end up outside university, and offer them opportunities to learn how to act responsibly in different environments.
- Let students act, not just receive teaching. Teach them about proven methods, self-reflection and interaction with their colleagues and social context.
- Challenge their worldview, their ideas, their sense of self-importance.
- Send your students into the world with the goal that they impact the world in a positive way, contribute to society and take over responsibility.
- Create lifelong higher education learning opportunities in order to keep your graduates employable.