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“Get lost, I’m trying to do a degree here!” or why the employability agenda often misses the point

During my second interaction with him, Tony expressed his sheer frustration about the reminders he received for a job application he had started as part of a career-preparation assignment. His outburst quoted in the title highlights a tense relationship between employability and doing a degree.

Tony was one of eight young people whose journeys I followed from their last year in their degree to their situation six months after graduating. Although Tony suggested that he was not interested in satisfying employability expectations, he did engage with opportunities that could be identified as CV-building such as gaining teaching experience in schools. He was also able to get a graduate-level job through a friend in order to satisfy his priority to return home to the countryside. For classmate Jane, her struggle with mental wellbeing meant focusing on just getting the degree done. As for Alice, seeming CV-boosting activities like doing a year abroad and achieving one of the highest grades possible on her degree meant little for her immediate future; she was more concerned with traveling and experiencing the world following her degree. Even Isaac, who diligently engaged with employability development opportunities to influence his employment prospects, finally revealed how stressful it was to manage these demands atop a degree. The nature of the relationship young people had with employment and thinking about it varied over time and ranged from optimism to sheer annoyance with the same. Clearly, employability is now not just embedded in Higher Education, it has gone far beyond and become a task that seems to have lost its meaning.

What these very short summaries demonstrate is a discrepancy between what young people are expected to do and their actual lived reality. For the former, this relates to how expectations of employer and policy-makers are actioned as employability development and provision in universities, such as through curricular activities like a year in industry or career fairs, career-center services, and university policies. The expectations would include, for example, the grade the individual achieved, how they can demonstrate having various skills, how they can respond to gaps in the economy. An example of this is seen in the UK’s 2016 Higher Education White Paper titled Success as a Knowledge Economy, which was criticized for its focus on marketability[1] and metrics in higher education[2]. Meanwhile, there is little work on how young people decide on certain pathways. The research revealed that in today’s technology-focused, quick-paced life – or ‘Late Modernity’ – when young people ‘make their way through the world’, they are confronted by multiple priorities, merely by virtue of the range of options available to them. Therefore, in addition to considering the employer and policy-maker expectations, given how embedded employability has become in higher education lingo, they also need to consider, for example, their personal circumstances in their so-called ‘choice’ for their futures. This can include a consideration of whether they should focus on mental wellbeing or career, which job offer to select, if they have the financial capital to do certain things, how their family would react, if they should return home, etc.

While these assertions may seem common-sense, work on employability has continued to focus on the demands of employers and the economy. Instead, if such work incorporated young people’s own admission of concerns, not only could we view the increasingly challenging work landscape more critically but we would also be able to support young people in their transitions. In practical terms, this can be carried out through improved career support. For example, it is crucial to consider the role of geography in young people’s decision-making rather than assuming mobility, that they will go where jobs are available. There is also a need for career professionals to stay clear of prescribing or insisting on a linear and pre-composed career trajectory as not only is the illusion of a ‘job for life’ just that, people are also likely to change their paths if it does not suit them. All in all, it is crucial to be aware that any decision must be understood within their context. Here, the futures of young people must be understood within their interpreted reality.

Sinead D’Silva is a Postdoctoral researcher based at Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa, funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation program. Her Doctorate which was based at the University of Leeds focused on decision-making by young people as they transition from STEM degrees in the UK. Sinead’s area of focus relates to young people’s engagement with their future through work and place. In today’s blog article, she shares the results of her doctoral research.

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[1] Tomlinson, M., 2018. Conceptions of the value of higher education in a measured market. Higher Education, 75(4), pp.711-727.

[2] Frankham, J., 2017. Employability and higher education: the follies of the ‘Productivity Challenge’in the Teaching Excellence Framework. Journal of Education Policy, 32(5), pp.628-641.

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