A New Vocationalism


    The starting point for this paper was the changed (and changing) pattern of destinations of new graduates since the data was first published in the 1960s. Evidence of increased unemployment and underemployment of new graduates is worrying for many groups in society not least the government, universities and the students themselves. The belief that giving more weight to the development of employability skills within university is a strong or effective solution to the problem is not supported by the empirical evidence. This approach, termed the 'old vocationalism', has been tried with increasing intensity since at the least the 1980s but with limited success. When a course of action meets with limited success one response is to try harder and another response is to find a different approach. In this paper we have looked for a different approach to the development of graduate employability. This search has led to an approach which gives greater weight to the development of students' learning capabilities and inclinations which we have termed 'new vocationalism' to differentiate it from increasing emphasis on the development of employability skills.

    This approach resolves the divergent forces within HE towards developing student employability, the traditional academic university education and the preparation of students for lifelong learning. It also has the benefit of playing to the existing values and strengths of the higher education system, including developing students' practice of learning, and to the preferences that graduate employers reveal in their hiring decisions (taking on graduates as employees who are ready, willing and able to learn). In so doing, it elevates the priority attached to developing students' powers of learning and reduces the priority of chasing a changing and expanding set of employability skills. For the students, this new vocationalism offers a chance to build on the abilities that gained them a place at university and develop a strength that experts in lifelong learning have concluded will serve them well for their entire life: willingness and ability to learn without close supervision.

    In traditional university education knowledge is the goal and learning is the means to that end. The new vocational higher education has a different teleological position; learning is the goal and the acquisition of knowledge is the means. The phrase that best captures the nature and aspiration of traditional university education is 'knowledge is power' whereas the message of the new vocationalism is 'learning is power'.

    Universities will always be pulled between the competing demands of professional bodies, employers, government and the increasingly loud student voice, in addition to their own funding and efficiency constraints in a time of growing student numbers. The new vocationalism involves holding fast to developing students' powers of learning and the preparation of students who are versatile learners, ready, willing and able to learn in whatever situations they find themselves in after graduating. This is something that universities are equipped to excel in with the support of active learning and teaching units and careers advisory services.

    Universities have always produced graduates for employment in the learned professions and it is time to recognise that that they are now also producing graduates for the learning professions.

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