22 SES 01 D, Employability of (post)graduates
Employability has come to the fore in higher education across the world in recent years. Barnett (2016) suggested that a focus on the employability of students constitutes a key feature of the common framework that has come to dominate higher education policy globally. The manner in which employability is conceptualised within higher education is thus highly significant. Tomlinson (2010) argued that the dominant view in higher education is that employability entails educating ‘individuals with the skills and competencies and qualifications required by the labour market’. This conceptualisation frames employability as part of a supply-side problem, with higher education institutions equipping graduates with skills appropriate to the available employment opportunities. Such a view is in evidence, for instance, within the report European Commission (2016), which sees skills gaps in the economies of the European Union as an occasion for more deliberate and targeted investments in human capital. Boden and Nedeva (2010), meanwhile, argued that employability is defined by institutions in terms of personal attributes, and that this ‘reflects notions of education as a transformative and essentially personal journey.’ As a result, employability is seen to entail the potential that an individual has to bring suitable capacities to the work setting, with higher education viewed as a form of investment in a project of the self for economic reward.
Boden and Nedeva (2010) further suggested that the outworkings of such understandings of employability have meant that universities have become strongly focused on the pursuit of economic utility. There are concerns, however, that the transactional economic model that underpins European society leaves little scope for collective considerations. Donati (2012) has suggested that future economic crises (on the lines of those experienced in the early 21st Century) can only be avoided if societies reduce their structural dependence on the State and for-profit market economies, instead incorporating attention to networks of social relations. Boden and Nedeva (2010) pointed out the implications of the current employability agenda for the nature of our universities, and for the extent to which they prepare graduates with the cultural and social capital to become active employers rather than passive employees. They did not, however, specifically consider the possibility of a collective basis for labour. The critique offered by Tomlinson (2010), meanwhile, remained set on individuals and markets, even if it recognised that these are dynamically inter-related to each other.
This exploratory study thus aims to explore the extent to which higher education can support an approach to labour that is not simply determined by individuals interacting with markets under the influence of policy established by States. The debate around employability presently remains framed within a structural analysis that fails to take into account the collective dimension of the agency that is open to graduates. It is true that it is individuals who possess the capacity to contribute to a collective effort, but it remains the case that dominant perspectives on employability undercut the possibilities for collective action by framing employability around the individual pursuit of economic reward. The research question at the heart of this study is whether it is possible to reconceptualise notions of employability to recognise more explicitly a collective basis for labour. Alongside this, the study asks whether higher education can play a more significant role within society than simply supplying suitable individuals for the labour market. Are there ways to enable higher education to contribute more directly to establishing flourishing societies?
In seeking to take into account a collective dimension to the agency of graduates, it is possible to build on the work of Cashian (2017). He suggested considering employability from a critical realist perspective. Cashian (2017) viewed employability as a social phenomenon that needs to be understood and researched, rather than something amenable to a 'definition'. He argued that the current employability discourse lacks a conceptual basis on which to ground such research. Critical realism, however, is helpful in offering a set of different levels for analysis. Bhaskar (2010) argued that social reality is characterised by seven layers that are analytically distinct from each other, which include the intra-personal, the individual as an entire person, meso-level structures and entire societies. Causal tendencies are in play at these different levels. When activated, these tendencies give rise to the events that we actually experience. Fleetwood (2011), indeed, has offered a critical realist analysis of labour markets as sets of socio-economic phenomena that are acted on by agents. The analysis offered by Cashian (2017), though, did not consider the relevance of a significant body of critical realist theorising to the debate in hand. Furthermore, he failed to consider any direct connection between employability and emancipation, despite the centrality of emancipation to critical realism. This paper offers a theoretical analysis rather than a report of an empirical study, with the argument developed on the basis of the paradigm of critical realism. The explanatory critique advanced in this paper operates on two levels. In the introductory sections of the paper, critical realism implicitly assists in exposing how current approaches to employability within higher education assume that work is about an individual engaging in transactional relations with a market. In the main body of the paper, critical realism is then more directly employed to offer a potential alternative approach to employability for higher education. In this we trace ways in which specific cultural structures (namely, understandings of what it means both to prepare for work and to work) have scope to influence the nature of the societies in which we live. The theoretical analysis opened up through critical realism offers a means to develop the discourse around employability, and to deliver on the study’s research questions.
The study identifies a set of causal tendencies by which work entails a contribution to a collective agenda, drawing together a body of existing research. Thompson and Vincent (2010) have argued that the agency of groups plays a key role in a range of workplace labour processes. The work of Archer (2003) on that form of agency by which a group of actors engender structural elaboration (that is, corporate agency) is thus relevant, allowing analysis that straddles the individual and the market. Donati (2012), furthermore, has argued that there is scope to ground economic life in social relations within which the subjects are reciprocally oriented to each other. On such views, collective aspects of labour are directly linked both to one’s own flourishing (which would include economic returns to the individual) and to the public good. The study goes on to link these causal tendencies to the way in which preparation for work of this kind is influenced by programmes of higher education. The analysis here builds on a recent empirical study by Lundgren-Resenterra and Kahn (2019), which explored how students were prepared to contribute to the elaboration of organisations. The programme engendered both social relations and the capacity to maintain different modes of collective reflexivity on the part of students. Such reflexivity concerns the individual deliberations that subjects employ together to take forward their social relations (Archer, 2013). In this way either the established agenda of the organisation was advanced or new directions were opened up for it. Further educational outcomes, though, are possible when one considers loci for collective action other than work. The study concludes by addressing considerations that might lead institutions of higher education to focus on forming their students for an active and critical approach to their working lives and beyond.
Archer, M. S. (2003). Structure, agency and the internal conversation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Archer, M. S. (2013). Collective reflexivity: A relational case for it. In C. Powell & F. Dépelteau (Eds.), Conceptualizing relational sociology: Ontological and theoretical issues (pp. 145–161). London: Palgrave Macmillan. Barnett, R. (2016). Policy, what policy? In P. John & J. Fanghanel (Eds.), Dimensions of Marketisation in Higher Education (pp. 223–232). Abingdon: Routledge. Bhaskar, R. (2010). Contexts of interdisciplinarity: interdisciplinarity and climate change. In R. Bhaskar, C. Frank, K. G. Hoyer, P. Naess, & J. Parker (Eds.), Interdisciplinarity and climate change: Transforming knowledge and practice for our global future (pp. 1–24). London: Routledge. Boden, R., & Nedeva, M. (2010). Employing discourse: universities and graduate ‘employability’. Journal of Education Policy, 25(1), 37–54. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680930903349489 Cashian, P. (2017). Developing a More Coherent and Robust Basis for Employability Research: A Critical Realist Perspective. In Graduate Employability in Context (pp. 109–128). New York: Springer. Donati, P. (2012). Beyond the Crisis of the Globalized “World System”: the Need For a New Civil Society. World Futures, 68(4–5), 332–351. European Commission. (2016). A new skills agenda for Europe. Brussells: European Commission. Fleetwood, S. (2011). Sketching a socio-economic model of labour markets. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 35(1), 15–38. Lundgren-Resenterra, M., & Kahn, P. E. (2019). The organisational impact of undertaking a professional doctorate: forming critical leaders. British Educational Research Journal. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3503 Thompson, P., & Vincent, S. (2010). Labour process theory and critical realism. Working Life: Renewing Labour Process Analysis, 47–69. Tomlinson, M. (2010). Investing in the self: structure, agency and identity in graduates’ employability. Education, Knowledge & Economy, 4(2), 73–88.
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