A New Vocationalism

'Old vocationalism' and 'new vocationalism' compared

    So far in this paper we've noted that universities responded to evidence of increased unemployment and underemployment of new graduates by giving more weight to employability skills to make university education more vocationally-relevant. We can term this the 'old vocationalism' since universities have been responding in this way for a long time, at least since the huge rise in graduate unemployment in the early 1980s.

    In this paper we are proposing a new approach to graduate employability focused on the capacity and disposition of graduates to learn. To differentiate it from the 'old vocationalism' we have termed it 'new vocationalism'.

    As this section contrasts the two approaches it is important to be quite clear about the meaning of each of these terms. Old vocationalism (OV) is HE that is orientated towards the expressed needs of graduate employers. It typically involves listening to employers' words about what they want most to see in new graduates and then making room for that in the curriculum. At the heart of the old vocationalism is the development of employability skills. These are normally developed through stand-alone courses or embedded in existing courses and may be included in the assessment criteria.

    By contrast, new vocationalism (NV) is orientated towards developing students' capacity and disposition to learn. The term that most precisely captures the new vocationalism is 'preparedness to learn'. This term includes two elements: (1) ability to learn and (2) inclination to learn. Students who have successfully completed a 3+ year course of university education have thereby been prepared to be effective learners. It is reasonable to believe that graduates are more prepared also to learn in the sense of willingness, even keenness, to learn than non-graduates.

    Both OV and NV come from a similar philosophy of HE which is as follows: (1) the primary purpose of a university education is to prepare students for their lives after university, (2) a significant part of the lives of students after university is the work they will do, (3) therefore a significant part of the purpose of a university education is to prepare students for the work they will do after they have completed their university studies.

    We have seen that there are good grounds to doubt that OV, i.e. attempts to develop employability skills, has had much effect on graduate employability whereas graduates who can show that they are ready, willing and able to learn are likely to be more successful in finding employment. The advantages of the new vocationalism (NV) over the old vocationalism (OV) do not stop there.

    OV is focused on the application to employment of skills and knowledge acquired during a university education. By contrast, NV is mostly about the acquisition of new skills and knowledge after university. A university education that develops the capacity and inclination to learn empowers students to acquire more knowledge after university.

    OV focuses on short-term employment whereas NV is equally applicable to long-term employment. OV is based on the skills that employers claim to be looking for in new graduates so the emphasis is on the graduate's next steps after university i.e. the graduate's immediate problem of finding employment after university. By contrast, NV is even more valuable in the long-run when graduate requirements for particular knowledge and skills cannot be known. Developing students’ capacity and disposition to learn is the best way of equipping them for work in a future that is unpredictable and grows more unpredictable as the planning horizon extends into the more distant future.

    OV is quite narrowly focused on preparation for finding work after graduation; its contribution to the other aspects of students' lives is largely confined to the fact that the lives of students who can find graduate employment is likely to be enhanced compared to those who cannot. By contrast, the position of NV is that although employment is a very significant part of the lives of students after graduation it is only one part and developing their capacity and disposition to learn contributes to the other parts too. Not only is it difficult to predict future change in the world of work, it is difficult to predict future change in the worlds outside work too and success in adapting to such change also depends on the capacity and disposition to learn.

    Some of the skills that employers want from graduates are quite general (e.g. teamworking) and some are quite specific. IT skills, for example, are quite specific to the current state of technology. Asking graduate employers to identify the skills they want from graduates is bound to produce a bias towards current skill deficits and specific skills to meet the current problems. This is one reason that surveys of graduate employers over the years have produced different rankings amongst the skills sought. By contrast, graduate long-term employment prospects are better enhanced by developing skills that are more general, more transferable and less short-term. The most transferable 'skill' of all is the ability to learn.

    The lead-time in 'producing' a graduate is at least three years and much can change in three years e.g. a labour shortage can become a glut as the state of the labour market changes. Technological change, in particular, can produce obsolescence in knowledge and skills. This means that a higher education that produces graduates to satisfy current demands is always likely to be vulnerable to changes in demands for graduate skills. By contrast, NV aims to satisfy a more stable labour market demand, for people who like to learn new things and are good at so doing.

    Table of comparisons of 'old vocationalism' and 'new vocationalism'


    Old vocationalism

    New vocationalism


    Higher Education that is orientated towards developing employability skills

    Higher Education that is orientated towards developing students' willingness and ability to learn

    Main goal:

    To equip students with the skills to find employment as graduates

    To enhance students career prospects by developing their powers of learning

    Relationship with new knowledge

    Focus on the application of the latest knowledge and skills to employment after university

    Focus on the acquisition of new knowledge and skills in employment after graduation.

    Time horizon:

    Short-term: the focus is on finding employment after graduation

    Short-term and Long-term: the focus is on preparing students for learning in employment that is likely to extend over next four decades after graduation.

    Work-life balance

    Narrow focus on work i.e. helping students find work after university

    Focus on adapting to future changes within work and also outside of work


    Focus on specific skill shortages of employers and current skill deficits.

    Focus on the most transferable skill of all i.e. the ability to learn.

    This section has compared university education that is oriented towards graduate employers' current demands for skills and knowledge (i.e. OV) with university education oriented towards developing students' inclinations and ability to learn (i.e. NV). The next section discusses some of the issues that emerge from this analysis.

    Next: Discussion