Students and Agency: How we get employability wrong

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CityBuddy2A driving force in the HE sector at the moment is employability. The Higher Education Academy notes: ‘A common theme across HE policy and funding throughout the UK is the need to ensure that graduates are prepared for, and able to contribute to, the economy and society. The development of graduates with relevant attributes, skills and knowledge has placed graduate employability at the centre of the HE agenda’. But a students’ ability to contribute economically or to society is founded on their desire/motivation to do so. And quite rightly, universities play a central role in developing this hunger in their students.

Even the Guardian has a student-facing site devoted to ‘looking at the huge variety of opportunities students are getting to meet employers and develop the skills likely to impress them’. But herein lies the issue: we are becoming guilty of taking away the ownership of students of their skills, knowledge and drive. Employability drives students to making themselves attractive to their professions, industries and future employers, rather than looking at how we enable students to choose their own career path upon graduation.

Student choice is, in theory, at the heart of the newly constituted university finance structure. In their 2011 Higher Education ‘White Paper’, the current government outlined plans to place students at the heart of the HE system. Through increased information readily available to students, sites like UNISTATS were to allow students to examine universities in detail, around key themes such as employment & accreditation , student satisfaction, cost & accommodation, study information, and entry information. The employment and accreditation section helps students see the average earnings sixth months after graduation, the numbers of students working in their subject fields, those more generally in employment or further study after graduation as well as the most common jobs graduates are in. All useful, but that this forms part of the shop-front for university selection is endemic of the fact that ‘education for educations’ sake’ is on sabbatical.

So if students arrive at university knowing their prospects, what motivation is it reasonable to assume they have? Not simply meeting the standards set by those who have gone before, but ensuring they don’t fail to do so. From dreaming about what they could be to working towards what they feel they can. Which, at 18 years of age, is a daunting prospect. Not only do we then proceed to get them inducted and covered in welcome week flyers and documentation, but we are asking them to sign up for societies, volunteering, skills workshops, sports teams and even jobs within the university. From day one it seems, we are turning our students into employees.

BUCSThis isn’t to take away from this agenda, however. The value of engagement in these activities is clear. For instance, the British Universities and Colleges Sport report on employability highlights the developmental aspects of participation in sport. Employers cited ‘positive attributes were listed by employers as being developed through sport including, amongst many others, team working, communication skills, motivation, competitiveness and resilience.’ For many, university is a place for trying new things and participation in sport is a fantastic avenue for this. Further, these attributes are critical for personal development. What we sometimes forget is that these are life skills, not the tick boxes prospective employers should shortlist candidates from. The BUCS report is facsinating, not least because in its executive summary it highlights the financial gains to graduates, such as an additional £6,344 on a household income for those involved with sport, or indeed that ‘Those who took part in sport at university (£32,344) had a personal income greater than those who attended the gym only (£28,080), or did not engage in sport (£26,728). This also doesn’t take into account those time-consuming degrees (such as nursing, masters programmes and distance-learners) which proclude many students from taking part in ‘Free Wednesday’ initiatives such as team competition. From the employers perspective, they gained the ‘sport criteria’ for sorting application, confident workers, employees adept at networking and ‘well rounded individuals’.

So if employers are able to identify these skills, and students are confident in advertising the ways in which they have developed them, then what’s my problem, you ask? Fundamentally, it comes down to the student themselves. The only accusation I could throw at a temporarily-personified employability agenda in court is that is forget the important part – the student in the middle of all this. Not their value to an organisation, not their additional bullet points on CVs, but the individual. We call these activities extra-curricular when considering them at a university level, but they are part of the ‘other’ education. David Brooks wrote in the New York Times that so-called ‘other education’ is ‘knowledge transmitted in an emotional education, on the other hand, comes indirectly, seeping through the cracks of the windowpanes, from under the floorboards and through the vents. It’s generally a byproduct of the search for pleasure, and the learning is indirect and unconscious.’  Transferable skills as a phrase is therefore a crude, de-humanising way to talk about how we develop into emotionally mature adults, and a university degree helps develop intellectual maturity.

Picture1Intellectual maturity is the name of the higher education game. Not simply the synthesis and acceptance of knowledge, but the active quest for more knowledge. Students should be pounding on our doors to learn more, we should be fighting them off with a barge-pole. But this requires us to go back to the beginning, and look at intellectual maturation as a process of education focused on developing the individual.

My research this year will consider this. Using an adapted model (right) from Colin Bryson’s Developing and Understanding Student Engagement (2014, Routledge; London) to look at where students’ sense of agency is derived, how this affects their ongoing relationships with those around them, but most importantly how their motivation changes and their sense of agency develops during the course of a university degree. If we can begin to understand the narrative of a modern learning and teaching underpins the journey to intellectual maturation, then we can understand not only the 21st century agency of our students but also the strengths, failings, but more importantly meanings of student agency and how this relates to the degree they have come to us to do.

For more information on this work, please look at the Educational Engagement Space and follow @cityedengage on twitter.

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