C. Lusuardi

Buckinghamshire New University (UNITED KINGDOM)
Over the past twenty years or so the term ‘employability’ has entered the discourse of the Higher Education (HE) community and its use appears to be increasingly widespread. In fact, it is seen by some as an integral part or indeed a core element of HE in the UK and Europe. While both the adoption of the term and the implementation of employability are noticeable across the various strata of university hierarchies, there can be little doubt that much of the impetus for this proliferation derives from the senior leadership of universities and extends to national and supranational government. This paper will examine how the meaning of the term has evolved as well as some of the current definitions of the concept of employability. Then, it will explore a number of ways in which employability has been implemented.

However, prior to the wide-spread appearance of ‘employability’ very different kinds of characteristics or properties had been considered the sine qua non of HE. Therefore, some thought will then be given to those attributes that had previously been seen as the ‘core business’ of universities and how they were embedded. The latter include such things as scholarliness, the fostering of critical and higher-order thinking skills and learning skills or metacognition. Interestingly, some proponents of employability, presumably aware of this tradition, have grafted these earlier ideas about the purpose of HE onto their definitions of employability.

We will then look at the implications of adopting the respective visions of the role of HE. A comparison of the former and latter will reveal a tension between the two, due to the fundamentally different approaches to thinking and understanding that underpin the two views. It will be argued that the former concerns itself essentially with conformity and adherence to rules. The latter, on the other hand, prizes an evidence-based approach to decision-making and criticality over any pre-determined rule system. In fact, to a large extent the concept of employability requires the individual to relinquish any aspiration to be reflective and self-aware. If this is the case, the first question to ask must be: are these the best skills with which to equip young people but more importantly why governments and the leaders of our universities have embraced the concept so wholeheartedly.

One potential explanation may be the advent of mass HE (with participation rates of 40% plus), which has brought about a change in the target audience of universities. When universities were the sole preserve of the elite, their purpose was to facilitate the imperceptible transfer of power and privilege from the current elite to their offspring. The status quo was maintained by the transmission or passing on of cultural capital inter alia from generation to generation (Bourdieu, 1970). Had they continued in the same vein, today they could not have maintained it because when power and privilege are conferred on approximately half the population, by definition the elite ceases to be an elite. Therefore, we may conclude that employability has become the new mechanism for safeguarding the status quo.

[1] Bourdieu, P 1970 La reproduction. Eléments pour une théorie du système d’enseignement Paris: Editions de Minuit