Higher education and employability by Cristina Sin

Cristina Sin (Centre for Research in Higher Education policies (CIPES), Portugal)
Cristina Sin (Centre for Research in Higher Education Policies (CIPES), Portugal)

Since around the turn of the century, the European Council and the European Commission have vigorously promoted the message that universities must enhance graduate employability through the articulation of curricula to labour market needs, through career guidance or through closer cooperation with employers.  The Bologna Process, too, upheld employability as a central objective of its reforms and underlined that qualifications should be relevant for the economy. Yet, how are we to understand graduate employability? And who is responsible for it?

We can look at employability from two contrasting angles. If it is a personal ability determined by an individual’s knowledge, skills and proactive disposition – as we are often made to believe – then employability is merely the result of individual endeavour. Put shortly, we are as employable as we have striven to be. Success or failure is a consequence of our own actions. On the other hand, if we accept that our environment and personal circumstances condition our success or failure, we might feel less burdened by the weight of our (un)employability. Admittedly, gender, age and race often continue to be impediments to getting a job. Then, a graduate’s ability of finding employment is, in turn, conditioned by their geographical location and the state of the labour market. The economic crisis which has plagued southern European countries is more than sufficient evidence for it. For a German graduate, his or her chances of getting a job have increased in the past seven years. There, the employment rate of recent graduates went up from 86.5% in 2008 to 90% in 2014. But for Spanish graduates, the contrary is true: their chances of getting a job have plummeted dramatically. While 82.1% of recent graduates were in employment in 2008, only 65.1% were lucky to have a job in 2014, and many of them with precarious employment conditions.

Is this because Spanish graduates try less hard, are less proactive or have less knowledge and skills? Most likely not. Or is it because Spanish universities should be doing more to make their students employable? This may be part of the problem, but even if they were to do more, employment rates in Spain would be unlikely to change considerably. No matter how eager students are to make themselves employable and no matter how receptive higher education institutions are to labour market needs, ultimately what greatly influences one’s ability of getting a job is the state of the economy and the labour market’s capacity to absorb graduates.

Set against this perspective, employability becomes more complex than the simplistic political messages want to make us believe: that is, that higher education holds the key to graduates’ employability, if only universities were to listen more to employers and became more sensitive to their needs.  When the greater economic context is taken into consideration – highly pertinent during the present economic crisis – putting the onus on higher education appears rather misplaced. So coming back to the initial question, is it at all sensible to hold universities responsible for employability? This is food for thought for policy-makers. And we haven’t even touched upon the controversial topic of the purposes of higher education and how far providing skills for the workforce is consistent with traditionally cherished purposes such as personal enlightenment and emancipation.

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