In the latter part of 2014, my colleague, Errol Rivera, attended a conference in Edinburgh that addressed the subject of university-to-work transitions. In this blog post, Errol raises the question about how ‘employability’ is increasingly being treated as a ‘discipline’ in its own right. He argues for an alternative narrative drawing on Foucault: one of ‘employability as a discourse’.
“In October, fellow educators gathered at a Society for Research into Higher Education event to discuss the state of graduate employability and share success stories of work placement and internships initiatives. In the concluding plenary, an interesting conversation arose. Regarding the subject of employability, its growing importance and the level of understanding it requires, are we looking at the rise of a new discipline?
The employability of HE graduates is an issue which impacts us on a national if not global level. Those within and outwith education institutions have an interest in tracking the current state of employment among graduates, identifying contributing factors, and articulating and projecting the effects of graduate employment statistics onto the social, political, and economic robustness of our society. The search to define, provide, and increase employability for our students has necessitated powerful tools for a deeper, more widely applicable understanding of the matter. But what are we actually trying to do with that understanding? Are we looking for significant relationships between practice and outcome? Do we assume there is a solution – that somewhere between the data and the relevant context we can reverse engineer a single policy or a combination of policies that can be enacted on a university or national level to bring about positive change? Are we chasing a single, all-encompassing answer that doesn’t exist – that shouldn’t exist?
Engaging with the notion of ‘employability as a discourse’ is a direct response to this ongoing conversation. What would we find if we employed the critical lens of Michel Foucault’s “The Order of Discourse” as a sensibility for interrogating publications, employability initiatives and university strategies – everything that articulates our understanding of how we ensure graduates’ futures? Given Foucault’s imperative for specificity and his resistance to the “process of exclusion” that is the notion of ‘Truth’, I’d imagine such an interrogation would lead us to acknowledge the success of work placement schemes, internships, and programmes of study that are contextual, dialogic, programme focussed, and even provisional. In embracing the culture of the respective practice of each profession, these initiatives are eschewing the notion that graduate employability maps onto to a single outcome. There is no single solution, and nor should educators be looking for one.”
Errol Rivera works at Edinburgh Napier University as a creative writer and pedagogical researcher. He also loves dogs and backs my on-going campaign for an office dog. You can follow his adventures @escottrivera.
So I thought Twitter was just a phase… How wrong I was. It bewilders me: what makes one social media application ‘stick’ and another one wither away into an html graveyard? This was the concern for those attending a session on The Realities of Badging at the Opening Education Practices in Scotland Advisory Forum in October. Open Badges (OBs) are digital image files created by Mozilla Firefox and are being taken up by some educationalists as a tool for recognising and rewarding non-academic activities [think boy/girl scout badges for the digital generation]. These files contain metadata about what skills, qualities, and level of achievements the badge holder has attained, as well as information about who has issued the badge, and even its verification by a third party. The value in their portability and imagery emerges when students add them to their social media sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and WordPress, in order to showcase their employability
For OB’s to ‘stick’, a reciprocal affiliation needs to develop between HE and FE institutions and employers. With such few trials of OBs in existence in the UK, the qualities of this relationship are unclear. For universities, there is no point spending resources creating OBs unless employers agree to value OBs, understanding what they represent and what weighting they carry. Employers are reluctant to offer their unreserved support for OBs until they understand the purpose and currency of OBs through regular adoption and use by HE and FE institutions. A charity director at the session summed up this catch-22 situation with her somewhat rhetorical question, ‘if we build them, will they come?’.
In her blog post Evidencing Employability Skills with Open Badges, Grainne Hamilton, a former Jisc RSC Scotland employee, summed up three possible barriers to making OB’s ‘stick’ for employers:
Employers want to immediately understand the value behind a badge. They don’t want to spend time clicking through to the detail of a badge unless they feel it will reveal something worthwhile
Employers are concerned with badge apathy and are likely to be put off the concept of badges if they come across too many badges that are irrelevant to them in a given context
It is probable that new trust networks will develop but initially it is likely badges from issuers employers already know and trust will be valued more.
Grainne’s blog post offers some solutions to these problems, including tagging, clustering and endorsing badges. However, for me, there is a larger issue that needs to be addressed around employability and the use of Open Badges: one of articulation. Wouldn’t handing out badges, albeit in shiny digital formats, simply reinforce the cognitive acquisition metaphor of ‘skills’ that can be ‘transferred’ from one place to another? As my colleagues in the Careers department argued when asked about OBs, the issue isn’t how we represent the skills attained – a certificate, digital badges or LinkedIn – it is how the student then articulates their understanding of this skill in relation to the workplace during an interview. The issue isn’t about how easily the employer can understand or recognise the significance of a LinkedIn endorsement or an Open Badge for Digital Learning, it is about how the student recognises and translates their non-academic experiences into professional responses about workplace practice. As educators, this is where our focus needs to be directed in order to better understand and enhance graduate employability.