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Employability agenda isn’t working

Steve Sarson’s first-years were tasked with a CV exercise on study time, so he reminded them of the alternatives to the market

Ian Summers opinion illustration (21 March 2013)

Source: Ian Summers

The exercise’s overall impact, especially when couched in the boardroom demotic of ‘action plans’, was to promote market behaviour

First-year history students at my university take a course titled Making History that teaches them about historical research and writing.

It comprises 20 twice-weekly lectures, given by various colleagues, on broad topics such as historiography, periodisation, causation, primary sources and reading critically, and 10 weekly seminars applying those topics to particular historical subjects - the American Revolution in my case.

This year, though, one seminar required students to “prepare three things: a CV; a paragraph identifying its weaknesses; an action plan for how you are going to address these weaknesses”.

Seeing these instructions, it struck me how far the “employability agenda” has progressed - to the point that it is now claiming time on syllabi at the expense of academic subjects and inculcating market values at the expense of free and critical thinking.

Making History and other modules have long integrated academic learning with transferable skills, such as finding and analysing information, then reporting on it in individual and group presentations, and in cogent, grammatical and correctly referenced essays.

The CV exercise, however, occupied the entire 50-minute session, involved no historical learning, and indeed appeared in the schedule without any relationship to previous or subsequent seminars. One out of 10 seminars devoted to employability may not seem much, but when academic study is entirely cast out of the classroom, what message does that send about its value? And when we introduce mooted “employability modules” and work placements, how much room will be left for academic endeavour?

The message given by sacrificing syllabus time to the employability agenda was reinforced by the manner in which the CV exercise was to be done. Inviting students to present their CVs in front of each other forced them to think of themselves as competitors - and even, for all but one of them, as “losers”. Surely in the first semester of the first year they would learn better through cooperation? But perhaps the idea is to normalise job-market rivalry as early as possible. Requiring students to identify and devise “action plans” to address their “weaknesses” also legitimises the notion that they must adapt to the needs of business, as opposed, for example, to business adapting to the needs of individuals, communities and countries. That effect was enhanced by an absence of attention to strengths (which, if implicit in the CVs, was soon undermined by the explicit focus on “weaknesses”). The overall impact, especially when couched in the boardroom demotic of “action plans”, was to promote market values and behaviour, rather than making them something students might want to question or protest about.

Universities used to talk about education for education’s sake and opening people’s minds. Now we talk increasingly about education for employment’s sake, with the methods utilised increasingly closing people’s minds.

It is difficult for universities to resist teaching employability when league tables measure how many graduates are in full-time employment six months after receiving their degrees, and with ministers reminding us of graduates’ need to pay off the enormous fees that the government has imposed. Perversely, the message being sent is that we are hurting ourselves if we encourage students to travel, take time over their life choices, pick unconventional vocations in the voluntary sector or the arts, study postgraduate degrees, or do anything other than push them into the rat race right away.

But individual academics can help to keep alternative thinking alive. I asked my seminar group, for example, to take ownership of the learning process (a pedagogical trend that seems to have all but disappeared since business got higher education in a headlock) and to reflect on and critique the CV exercise they were required to do (though I stressed repeatedly that I have no more right to indoctrinate them than does Vince Cable or his lobbyists).

Then, remembering Lord Mandelson’s characterisation of students as “consumers of the higher education experience”, I let mine choose whether or not to publicise their CVs, identify their weaknesses and produce action-plan-based solutions to make them “fit for purpose”. I gave the opportunity to those who wanted it, of course, but felt it unconscionable to force it upon those who did not. Five did, five did not. I also took a poll: all 10 students agreed that employability was best left to careers officers and not placed on the syllabus.

Another five did not turn up to class, perhaps voting with their feet. We are supposed to report absentees, but, as forcing employability on students would be treating them more as products than consumers, I decided to respect their choices.

Do you have a similar story? Email david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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Readers' comments (15)

  • You are the authority in that classroom and the students will take your lead, they will pick up subtle feelings from you and they will react to them.

    You have a well-paid position in society and you do not need to take CV writing as seriously as a large proportion of your students will over the coming years; however I believe your negative attitude will lead them to believe that they do not need to take these skills seriously either.

    This year for the first time your graduates will be asked how employable they feel six months after graduation. If your graduates in particular are below your institution's average then I would ask a serious question about why they are leaving your course feeling that they haven't got the skills of their peers in other areas.

    If however they feel fantastically employable then you can continue to maintain that someone else is responsible for providing those foundations that will set them up for the rest of their lives.

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  • I'm wondering whether the students would have answered differently if the author's attitude to the seminar material had been supportive?
    And who said that CVs had to be used purely for the purpose of entering the rat race? Putting together a CV early on in a degree can help a student reflect on what choices they would like to make. It can also lead them to sources of information about their favoured choices and to planning activities to undertake during their period of study that will be beneficial in that. A focus on weaknesses is harsh, I agree, but since at some point money will need to be earned in order to live, looking at the gap between skills/experiences now and what will be needed in your path of choice seems wise.
    Of course, as a careers professional I would say all that, wouldn't I.....

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  • @ Paul Youngson and Ghislaine Dell
    Surely employability are best done by those in the careers centre and not by academics, who often do not have any experience of working outside HE. If I was a student and my lecturer reviewed my CV rather than a careers advisor, I'd feel I hadn't feel got value for my tuition fees. Academics can play an increasingly important role in encouraging students to gain employability skills and by fostering links between research and the commercial sectors, but not, I feel, by reviewing student CVs.

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  • @ Jenny Benham
    CV writing may well be best delivered via careers service professionals. Nevertheless, there is a lot more to employability than CV writing. Ideally, these skills are embedded within the curriculum and involve meaningful, subject-based tasks. In Geography, for example, this might involve getting students to participate in a mock planning enquiry or perhaps submit a consultancy report for assessment (rather than an essay). Such tasks, trivial as they may seem in themselves, are about (i) applying subject knowledge; and (ii) employability.

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  • @ Derek McDougall
    Hear, hear! These are exactly the sorts of things academics should get involved with. However, these things work best when working together with Careers Centre staff because most academics simply 'don't get it'. They've never worked outside HE and don't always know how to apply the skills they have, or their students have, to employment in the commercial sector. Possibly, this is more true of the Arts & Humanities than the Sciences.

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  • Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. I’d like to answer @Paul Youngson’s and @Gislaine Dell’s points about my attitude to CVs being negative by saying that that being hostile to students learning how to do CVs (which I’m not) is not the same as being hostile to CV-teaching taking up class time (which I am)—a distinction I tried to make clear in that class. Indeed, in that class I did the best I could for those who wanted to do the CV exercise, precisely to address @Paul Youngson’s concern that my students have equal opportunity to others. My second point, though, is that “the best I could” is not the best they can get. I agree with @Jenny Bentham that CVs are best taught by trained, professional careers’ advisers—such as @@Gislaine Dell, while academics are best placed to teach “transferable skills” in just the kinds of ways that @Derek McDougall writes about. I don’t think it’s quite true, as @Jenny Benham says, that we academics ‘don’t get it’ when it comes to careers’ advice—we all had to get jobs ourselves, and these days that typically takes a lot of time and thought, a lot of CV drafting, and a lot of interviews. But it’s true we won’t get it as well as careers officers because I research and teach history and its associated skills and do my best to help students get the jobs they want by giving them the best advice and references I can. But careers’ officers are always going to be better at the former than academics are because they are careers’ officers—that is what they do. This is not really a problem—economies and societies work by exactly these kinds of divisions of expertise and labour. So why make historians and other academics do CV work, and why do it in class time? That question brings me back to my original point. The reason is, I think, to go back to @Paul Youngman’s point, because in classes we academics are supposed to “lead”. To me, that means leading an open discussion of whatever issue is at hand. In turn, that requires me to be open about what I think, but equally to be open to the views of everyone else—and indeed not hostile or negative about those who disagree with me. Hence I encouraged an open discussion of the meanings of teaching CVs (and exclusively CVs) in a seminar that was supposed to be in a history course. What open discussion does not mean, is going into a classroom with a set of unspoken and unacknowledged assumptions that students *must* be able to write CVs because they *must* be “employable” in a certain kind of way, and must not think about other ways of earning their livings and living their lives. That is closing down discussion, narrowing possibilities, and that’s not the kind of leading I think I should be doing. Students should question things—some will come of that questioning process with some very traditional views about what they want, and that’s fine, as long as they’ve had the chance to think about all alternatives. That’s what being a student was about when I was lucky enough to be one and I hope we can keep it that way.

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  • Just to give my own biases, I'm a university careers adviser and also have a PhD in English literature. I've never worked as an academic, but I did teach undergraduates during and after my PhD.

    >> Inviting students to present their CVs in front of each other forced them to think of themselves as competitors - and even, for all but one of them, as “losers”.

    I think that's a very strange way to look at that exercise. Are all presentations competitive, with winners and losers? If students do a presentation on a History topic, or students on a creative course present a project and get feedback from a group, is that a competitive exercise? It seems much less competitive to me than submitting essays which are marked on a purely numeric scale and being given a degree classification based on those scales!

    What I would be expecting to see in this exercise would be students learning to differentiate themselves, and to give each other positive and constructive feedback. The fact that the CV exercise focussed on "weaknesses" and not also on "strengths" is a very valid criticism - students and graduates definitely have at least as much difficulty identifying their strengths as they do identifying their weaknesses! I'd also hope to see them sharing knowledge about their different careers ambitions, eg. Student A saying they're planning to go into a law conversion course, and Student B is amazed to discover that law is an option and gets all excited by the possibility. With History and English students, you have to be quite careful that they don't start reinforcing the idea that there are no jobs and it's all pointless, or that it's selling out if you want to apply for a graduate scheme, which can be a pretty depressing and unhelpful narrative for those that do want to go on in that direction, but as with any other kind of seminar, they've got lots to learn from each other.

    However, as a university careers adviser for at least the next three weeks, I'm very happy to see recognition that we have specialist knowledge in this area!

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  • Thank you for your comment, Mary Macfarlane. It's true that essay marks and degree classifications are competitive, and that there has to be some process of differentiation. And, yes, it's more competitive than the CV exercise as long as the CV exercise wasn't for marks or indeed for a real job. Yet, when it comes to the competitive environment that this exercise was supposed to prepare students for, only one CV holder gets the job, while essya marks and degree classifications reflect students' achievements and all students get to a prize, as it were (unless they drop out for whatever reason; virtually none fail). My main concern, though, was not so much that the exercise was being done, but that it was being done in syllabus time when it could be done better at other times with experts such as yourself. This has the effects of distracting from and even demeaning the academic subject, and of making academics imply to students that they "must" be "employable", and must be employable within certain parameters in which they think of "action plans" and "weakenesses". In other words, while I think academics should work to open minds, to make students think of all possible worlds, this exercise in effect asks us to normalise the business world's way of doing things and perhaps even thereby to indoctrinate them with that kind of ideology.

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  • Sorry about the early morning typos, there....

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  • I'm careers adviser working in HE and I find myself mostly agreeing with Steve. I agree on the small point of CV workshops are generally not to be delivered in academic seminars and the big point that employability assumes market capitalism which sits uneasily in HE where free thought, critique and creative expression are prized. I completely agree that students should be equipped to think critically about capitalism and the modern world of work.

    But I am also in favor of @ Derek McDougall approach there can be subject sensitive ways of discussing the world of work and allowing students to explore it for themselves. My fear is if academics pull up the drawbridge on careers entirely they'll just find those efforts being thwarted by "the powers that be". What I'd encourage academics is to think of ways they can engage in employability by encouraging free thought and critical expression in the context of their subject. The big question is how does my degree link to the rest of my life? I think that this can engaged with in a way that is inline with the existing ethic of HE rather subordinating it. I'd recommend the work of Phil McCash as a good place to start. I feel employability is here to stay but academics (and careers workers) can consider how they will engage in it.

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