• Fraser Harper

Putting Employability in Context


No matter where you look in the world, the issue of employability – in particular graduate student employability – is high on the agenda for many. From students to regulators to universities, understanding and making effective progress on employability is crucial. We are also finding employability entering into student expectations about the courses they undertake. A recent survey of 2000 UK students by Campus Society1 found a high level of dissatisfaction, such that many (27%) wished they had chosen a different degree course, and while others questioned the value of their university experience.

Is there a danger the employability discussion we see and hear starts to focus on the wrong areas?

Let’s take a few different perspectives.

Firstly, in the UK, there has been a very rapid rise in the numbers of students going up to university and so the profile of students has changed dramatically from, say, 15-20 years ago2. The move towards a near comprehensive student intake3 has shifted expectations and probably learning styles and abilities. We have seen from the National Students Survey and destinations data variable levels of student dissatisfaction being raised4. At the same time, we have seen the UK labour market develop a series of imbalances between the number of graduates entering and the number of “graduate jobs” available5. Depending on how you define ‘graduate jobs’6, there is a shortage of 3-3.5 million graduate level jobs. So perhaps the dissatisfaction and destinations data reflect the imbalance between graduate supply and demand, and also the mixed level of knowledge (and criteria) possessed by students when they apply to university. Alignment of expectations and understanding course content and likely outcomes might go some way to raising satisfaction as students will be ‘buying’ what they thought was on offer.

Second, across Africa and much of the Middle East, graduate unemployment runs at 18-20% and higher (up to 40% in some cases)7, and questions are being raised about the quality and relevance of degree programme curricula8. But let’s look at the barriers to making progress. Yes, there issues around curriculum content, but more importantly there is a huge challenge around the structure of the labour market (economy) and how employers engage with universities9. And perhaps even more important still is are the strategies and polices adopted by national governments to harness the power of higher education in driving their economy’s forward10. This also highlights the potential danger of imposing traditional models of OECD country employability models on Africa and Middle East without significant reference to the status and structure of the local economies.

Third, as economies mature and reshape around “information”, traditional pathways of progression across a national school system and then in Further and Higher Education become blurred. The clear divide between academic and technical pathways starts to merge as we see the moves towards comprehensive higher education admissions policies11 and the changing requirements of future jobs12. We then can see a number of other important developments across the largely post-18 education and training system in the UK, and those are: the emergence of liberal arts and science degrees, the ability to progress up across different levels within an occupational pathway or cluster (e.g. from apprenticeship through to higher educational qualifications with professional recognition13), the dependence of major public services like education and health on higher education in providing their entry workforce, etc. These, and other developments certainly confuse the whole employability question and its assessment across universities.

So, talk of employability and using destinations data needs to be treated with extreme caution when evaluating the short-term contribution of courses and universities.


1: Campus Society survey reported in the i-news “Over quarter of students regret degree” by Richard Vaughan, 2019. Also see: www.campussociety.org.uk

2: Universities UK (2018) Growth and Choice in University Admissions. June 2018. 20 pages; Higher Education Commission and Policy Connect (2017) One Size Won’t Fit All. The Challenges Facing the Office for Students. 84 pages; Higher Education Policy Institute (2014) A guide to the removal of student number control. HEPI Report No 69. 32 pages; Universities UK (2018) Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education. Universities UK, London. 39 pages

3: Office for Students (2019) Data analysis of unconditional offer-making. Recent changes and how they affect students. 32 pages; Office for Students (2019) Unconditional offers: serving the interests of students? Insight Brief No 1; UCAS (2918) End of Cycle Report 2018. Unconditional offer-making to 18-year olds from England, Northern Ireland and Wales (Chapter 3), 49 pages; Blackman, T. (2017) The Comprehensive University: An alternative to social stratification by academic selection. Occasional Paper No 17. HEPI, Oxford. 68 pages.

4: National Students Survey (2018) shows 83% overall satisfaction with courses (ranges 71% for the LSE through to 94% at St Andrews) with less students happy with their assessment and feedback (only 73% satisfied).

5: Rhys-Williams, J. (2010) Graduate Employment Trends. Middlesex University, London. 18 pages; Tholen, G. (2014) The role of Higher Education within the labour market: the evidence from four skilled occupations. Paper presented to the ESRC Festival of Science, November 2014, St Anne’s College, University of Oxford.

6: Green, F. and Henseke, G. (2017) Graduates and ‘graduate jobs’ in Europe: a picture of growth and diversification. Working Paper, No 25. Centre for Global Higher Education, Institute of Education UCL, London. 47 pages

7: ASDA’A BCW (2019) Arab Youth Survey 2019. A Call for Reform. 56 pages; IMF (2013) Africa’s got work to do: employment prospects in the new century. IMF Working Paper 13/201. 39 pages; WEF (2017) The future of jobs and skills in Africa. Preparing the region for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 28 pages

8: PWC (2018) Reimagining the Student Journey. Creating efficient student focused universities in the Middle East; Mohameabhai, G. (2016) Graduate unemployment in Africa: causes, consequences, and responses. Paper presented to the 17th Annual Global Development Conference, Lima, Peru. 13 pages

9: ILO (2008) Skills for employability of workers and productivity of enterprises in Arab States. Arab Forum on Development and Employment, Doha, Qatar. November 2008. 26 pages; British Council (2014) Can Higher Education solve Africa’s jobs crisis? Understanding graduate employability in Sub-Saharan Africa. 16 pages

10: World Bank (2017) Higher Education for Development. 166 pages

11: See Note 2 above

12: European Training Foundation (2018) Getting ready for the future. www.etf.europa.eu ; British Academy and the Royal Society (2018) The impact of artificial intelligence on work. An evidence synthesis on implications for individuals, communities and societies. 44 pages; Hogarth, T. (ed, 2018) Economy, employment and skills: European, regional and global perspectives in an age of uncertainty. Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini. 306 pages; UKCES (2014) The future of work. Jobs and skills in 2030. 31 pages; Nesta/Oxford Martin School (2017) The future of skills. Employment in 2030. Pearson, London. 124 pages

13: Russell Group (2018) Informed Choices. A Russell Group Guide to making decisions about post-16 education. Sixth Edition. Russell Group, London. 33 pages; London Councils (2018) The Higher Education journey of young London residents. London Councils, London. 69 pages.


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