ERG SES C 11, Studies on Education
The notion of graduate employability is a complex and multifaceted one. At its broadest, graduate employability refers merely to success in the labour market (Hillage and Pollard, 1998). However, the notion is also associated with the acquisition of human capital (Keeley, 2007), perceptions of self-efficacy (Dacre Pool and Qualter, 2013), graduate identity (Hinchcliffe and Jolly, 2011) and systems of credentialism (Edwards, 2014). Thus, to reduce graduate employability to simple notions of skills, qualifications and labour market success is to fail to engage with the complex and potentially contradictory dynamics that may influence graduates' future successes.
Policy towards, and public discourse about, higher education in Europe has encouraged a focus on the development of students’ human capital. Higher education institutions (HEIs) are incentivised to engage in a competition to produce knowledgeable and creative students within the context of strengthening national competitiveness in knowledge-intensive economic activities (Kivinen and Nurmi, 2014). Two significant consequences arise from this: an institutional imperative to attract and retain the brightest and best students(Fumasoli and Huisman, 2013); and a shift in the governance of higher education to a focus on competitive ranking(Erkkilä and Piironen, 2014). This leads to the conceptualisation of students as customers of higher education, bringing a certain amount of purchasing power to bear in their selection of courses and institutions and pursuing strategies geared towards the maximisation of their educational returns, including career opportunities in later life.
Foucault's (2008) notion of parrhesia represents a particular kind of truth-telling, one in which the truth-teller takes an ethical stance in relation to truth. In doing so, the truth-teller tells the truth to those in positions of dominance, despite exposing themselves to immediate risk. I argue that the influence of market dynamics serves to reconfigure the power relation between HEIs, students, employers and governments. This threatens to place HEIs in a position of subordination to the interests of students and wider society. As a result, for HEIs to engage with a complex notion of graduate employability is an act of parrhesia on the part of HEIs. In an environment where students play the role of consumers, shopping around for the “best” education that they can acquire, to question the very assumptions that underpin students' choices of institutions and courses of study places HEIs in a dilemma. On the one hand, HEIs are reliant on recruiting sufficient numbers of students to support the viability of courses, thus incentivising approaches to marketing that promote the most positive images possible. On the other hand, to discuss the complexities of “getting on” in the world of work entails a challenging of the simple connection between courses, grades and labour market success. For HEIs, particularly those that are not considered to be among an elite, this contains an element of risk: calling into question the value of certain courses in certain institutions, and thus risking discouraging applications from prospective students.
However, I argue that Foucault's notion of parrhesia offers an opportunity for HEIs to escape this dilemma. By challenging the simplistic connection between the acquisition of qualifications and success in the labour market, HEIs have the opportunity to engage with students on the basis of their values, ambitions and aspirations. In this way, a new dialogue about the value of higher education can be opened up, one that transcends national and institutional interests and speaks to prospective students as humans-in-becoming in a shared world. This enables HEIs to avoid both a total submission to the forces of the market and a total retreat from the very real practical concerns of students.
Dacre Pool, L. and Qualter, P. (2013) “Emotional self-efficacy, graduate employability, and career satisfaction: testing the associations”, Australian Journal of Psychology, 65(4), pp.214-223 Edwards, L. (2014) “Discourse, credentialism and occupational closure in the communications industries: the case of public relations in the UK”, European Journal of Communication, 29(3), pp.319-334 Erkkilä, T. and Piironen, O. (2014) “Shifting fundaments of European higher education governance: competition, ranking, autonomy and accountability”, Comparative Education, 50(2), pp.177-191 Foucault, M. (2008) The Government of Self and Others, New York, NY: Picador Foucault, M. (2009) Security, Territory, Population, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan Fumasoli, T. and Huisman, J. (2013) “Strategic agency and system diversity: conceptualizing institutional positioning in higher education”, Minerva, 51, pp.155-169 Hillage, J. and Pollard, E. (1998) Employability: Developing a framework for policy analysis, London: Department for Education and Employment Hinchcliffe, G. and Jolly, A. (2011) “Graduate identity and employability”, British Educational Research Journal, 37(4), pp.563-584 Keeley, B. (2007) Human Capital: How what you know shapes your life, Paris: OECD Kivinen, O. and Nurmi, J. (2014) “Labour market relevance of European university education. From enrolment to professional employment in 12 countries”, European Journal of Education, 49(4), pp.558-574
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