22 SES 01 D, Employability and Societal Value of Higher Education
In her recent book, The Reflexive Imperative, the sociologist Margaret Archer suggests that we are living in times of rapid social transformation which she terms a ‘nascent morphogenetic society’. Her morphogenetic approach stresses the temporal dimension of any social analysis, and is well suited to explaining how the past conditions the space for present action, and how present action is formative of future conditioning of the social world. In addressing the theoretical challenge of how to account for the relations between social structures and individual agents, Archer proposes a teasing apart of the relations deriving from the material world (structural) and those from the discursive/ideational world (cultural). Using this framework Archer characterises contemporary times as follows:
… the emergence of a new conjuncture between the cultural order (ideationally based) and the structural order (materially based) [which] is shaping new situational contexts in which more and more social subjects find themselves and whose variety they have to confront – in a novel manner. (Archer 2012, 1)
While modernity involved massive changes from a traditional order, it evolved a relatively stable social context in which the ‘rules’ on how to ‘make it’ were relatively clear. Archer suggests that this is now changing quite rapidly and is making it imperative that individuals exercise increased levels of reflexivity, in order to be able to cope with a changing context:
Increasingly all have to draw upon their socially dependent but nonetheless personal powers of reflexivity in order to define their course(s) of action in relation to the novelty of their circumstances. (Archer 2012, 1)
This recent thesis thus raises significant questions around the purposes of higher education in contemporary times; already a raging debate. Brown et al. (2010) present a careful analysis which demonstrates that the ‘promise’ of good employment prospects that has traditionally been held out to graduates in Europe and America, no longer holds in these contexts. With relatively high participation levels in higher education and offshoring of many jobs to the developing world, the ‘graduate premium’ is no longer a simple reality. What then, are the purposes of higher education? Many scholars are suggesting that we need to revisit and reengage with traditional arguments around the public good value of higher education (Lagemann and Lewis 2011; Nixon 2011).
This literature is dominated by perspectives from the post-industrial developed world, and indeed, Archer in her thesis on the ‘morphogenetic society’ explicitly notes that the social changes she is describing are currently only visible in these parts of the world, although she does not draw on empirical evidence from elsewhere. With regard to the relationship between higher education and employment, a recent analysis by Carnoy and colleagues (2013) shows that in the developing world context of the BRIC countries who have much lower participation in higher education, the graduate premium is still demonstrable.
Archer’s work thus raises significant questions for higher education. At a conceptual level, if we are indeed living in times of rapid morphogenesis, the rate and spread of which is only likely to increase, what does this mean for the role of higher education in society? If young people are increasingly reliant on sophisticated exercising of reflexivity in order to ‘make their way in the world’, how does the experience of higher education influence this capacity? This analysis would demand a more nuanced understanding of the influence of higher education on individual properties and powers than that presently supplied by the rhetoric on ‘graduate attributes’, we suggest, aligning ourselves with an emerging critical literature in that regard (Austin 2012; Jones 2012).
Archer, M. S. 2012. The reflexive imperative in late modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Austin, A. E. 2012. "Challenges and visions for higher education in a complex world: commentary on Barnett and Barrie." Higher Education Research & Development no. 31 (1):57-64. Brown, P., H. Lauder, and D. Ashton. 2010. The global auction: The broken promises of education, jobs, and incomes: Oxford University Press. Carnoy, M., I. Froumin, P. K. Loyalka, and J. B. Tilak. 2013. "The concept of public goods, the state, and higher education finance: a view from the BRICs." Higher Education:1-20. Carrigan, M. M. A. 2014. Becoming who we are: personal morphogenesis and social change, University of Warwick. Jones, A. 2012. "There is nothing generic about graduate attributes: unpacking the scope of context." Journal of Further and Higher Education no. 37 (5):591-605. Lagemann, E. C., and H. Lewis. 2011. What Is College for? The Public Purpose of Higher Education, Teachers College Press. Nixon, J. 2011. Higher education and the public good. London: Continuum.
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