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Maddie Colledge

postgraduate education
m.colledge@uea.ac.uk

higher education: what are we doing here?

Employability: a word that seems to appear in every university meeting, strategy, and chases you ominously every time you walk past the yellow glow of Career Central. Employability has become the word of choice in a world where universities are at the will of where they sit in various league tables, constantly fixated on metrics that can either make or break them - and fearful of anything that might reduce applications from students who bring in funding via their tuition fees.  

First of all, here's some technical bits on why UEA, like many other universities, will be prodding you undergraduates to get to work on your CVs lately. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which ranks universities by their 'quality of teaching,' uses rates of employment 6 months after graduation and the number of graduates in ‘highly skilled’ employment as its criteria.  Soon TEF may also take the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data into account, which measures salary up to 5 years after graduation. In reality, it is far more likely that the luck of your upbringing, the elitist reputation of your university, and your social capital have more bearing on your ability to find a job, than the excellent lecturer who passionately introduced you to the work of Judith Butler. We must not start to confound employment prospects with quality of teaching, and should be challenging such a connection set by the government.    

It’s not just undergraduates who are being told to prepare for employment, but also research students, who are increasingly being pressured to take their future employability seriously. In a recent paper One Size Does Not Fit All from CHASE, PhD candidates were warned not to prioritise their thesis at the expense of their career planning. When I read this, I stopped and reflected over this line for quite a while at the idea that PhD students should be reprioritising their thesis in exchange for employability. RE-PRIOROTISE THEIR THESIS? the entire reason they are in higher education, the things that contribute so much to the world of research? Then I got to thinking - why are we all actually here?  

You might have made the decision to apply for an undergraduate degree because with over 50% of the population entering higher education, not gaining a degree qualification may disadvantage you in the job market. I get it, you are going to be concerned about employability when you are paying record levels of tuition fees. More and more students will also be considering applying for a Masters Degree because an Undergraduate degree isn’t competitive enough. Employability through university is a real concern for students, and one that the university should respond to. This, however, should take the form of consulting with students about what that actually means, because it feels like we aren’t even having a debate about what we want from HE anymore. Do students want the university to be more employability focused - and at what expense? 

The fact that we often seem to miss, is that Universities were never really developed to make people employable. Are universities not, in concept, meant to be about contribution to the knowledge of mankind and the changing the way we view the world? Regardless of your occupation after university, you have had the opportunity to develop personally in way that will change the way you interact with and critique the world.   

But there doesn’t seem to be a debate anymore about HE and what it does for society, or why students come to university.  The worth of a university, and the worth of its students, has become reduced to the wages of its graduates. This is a sorry state of affairs, and one that I would have expected people within universities to challenge. It might be harder for people outside HE circles to see the value added to each individual student, but Vice Chancellors across the country should have no trouble believing and promoting the power of education, because they are themselves products of it. If you are looking for a group of people to explain through innovative and intellectual arguments, the wider value of HE, then look no further than the students in HE itself.  

Universities are tampering with curricula in the name of employability, but to what end? At what point will higher education cease to be what it once was? And when have we engaged with students about why they came here in the first place, or what they think of their actual curricula being tampered with?  

In the coming weeks, uea(su) are going to be consulting with students about what employability means to them. We want to know what kind of services you want the University to provide so that we can feed this back to University management.  I want to promote wider discussion about what employability in HE actually means.  

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