A New Vocationalism


    In this section we discuss some of the issues that emerge from this approach to graduate employability.

    Graduate jobs

    According to the new vocationalism (NV) the main reason that most graduate employers employ graduates is because they are better prepared and more inclined to learn than non-graduates. Why is this so important to graduate employers?

    In order to answer that question it is helpful to start by addressing another question, 'For what sort of job is enhanced learning capability and disposition particularly important?' One such sort of job is where keeping up with emerging new knowledge is an explicit part of the job description. This would include, for example, all jobs in academia and, to a greater or lesser extent, all the jobs for which graduates are employed in the education system. It would also include jobs in the traditional learned professions such as medicine, where doctors, for example, are expected to keep abreast of the growing stream of new knowledge and filter genuine advances from the promotional claims of pharmaceutical companies.

    The other sort of job where the ability and disposition to keep on learning is important is where there is likely to be a significant rate of change in the job or its context. The key to surviving and thriving in a changing environment is adaptation and the ability to adapt depends on learning. Many people have made the link between environmental change and the ability to learn. For example: "(1) When the rate of change is faster than that of learning, the organism fails. (2) When the rate of learning is as fast as (or faster than) that of change, the organism is likely to adapt, to survive and even grow." (Revans, 1984, p. 30.)

    Change alters the environments in which organisations operate. Organisms which cannot adapt to significant changes in their environments die out and organisations that cannot adapt to change in their environments are similarly fated. Adaptation by, and within, an organisation implies learning. Organisations that are made up of people who are unable or unwilling to learn stand little chance in a changing world. By contrast, organisations that are filled with people who are willing and able to learn can survive and thrive in a changing environment; that is why organisations need to recruit people who are good at learning.

    This line of reasoning implies that more graduates are likely to be employed in those jobs and in those sectors of the economy which are experiencing the fastest change.

    It also implies a new definition of a graduate job, i.e. a graduate job is one where a satisfactory level of performance requires that job incumbents maintain a high rate of learning. This implies, furthermore, that jobs that place emphasis on the continuing professional development of incumbents are likely to be graduate jobs.

    NV and the link between university education and economic growth

    Many people have asserted that an increase in the supply of highly qualified labour is necessary for economic growth and hence advance in the material well-being of the population. This includes not only those with an interest in promoting this belief such as 'Universities UK', but also groups that would bear at least part of the cost of increased supply of graduates, including the government. There have always been dissenting voices who point to particular academic subjects, such as medieval history, and ask for the precise mechanism whereby more medieval historians accelerates the growth of the economy.

    The new vocationalism (NV) offers such a mechanism and it works as follows. Knowledge is accumulating at an increasing rate but what limits the impact of that new knowledge on the material well-being of society is the rate at which people can learn to use it and adapt to the consequences of its use, i.e. the constraint on economic growth is the rate of absorption of new knowledge not its rate of production. It is possible to develop powers of learning by study of almost any subject at all over the course of 3+ years of university education, including medieval history.

    In other words, rather than thinking of graduate supply causing economic growth, it is more realistic to see the rate of economic growth as limited by the ability of people to learn and thereby adapt to the environmental change that economic growth implies. If a university education is primarily about developing the ability to learn, as contended by the NV, then increasing the number of people in the economy who are good at learning, and helping them to become better learners, relaxes that constraint on the rate of growth.

    The rate of accumulation of new knowledge is accelerating. The traditional way that new academic knowledge is placed in the public domain is in the academic journal and there has been accelerating growth in the number of academic journals worldwide, especially if one includes the relatively recent phenomenon of the on-line academic journal. Knowledge advances not only by the production of new knowledge but also by its dissemination and storage and acceleration in both of these is evidenced by the digital revolution. An accelerating rate of accumulation of knowledge drives an accelerating rate of economic change and an accelerating rate of social change. The faster that change occurs, the less value is old knowledge and the more value is the ability and willingness to learn.

    An important consequence of this accelerating accumulation of knowledge is that much up-to-date knowledge soon becomes out-of-date knowledge. In other words, the shelf-life of knowledge is falling and no matter how up-to-date the knowledge of a new graduate, it will soon be out-of-date without new learning. For example, a doctor who acquired no new knowledge after graduation would soon be hopelessly out of date, such is the pace of change of medical knowledge. Consequently, continuing professional development has become a feature of all the learned professions.

    So why is it so important to graduate employers that graduates are better prepared and more inclined to learn than non-graduates? The answer lies in the platitude that the pace of change is increasing. This is a platitude because it is true. It is particularly true of those parts of the economy that are dependent on the production, storage, communication and interpretation of information. Graduates are particularly valued in such knowledge-intensive industries. This means it is particularly true of graduate employment and graduate jobs.

    Accelerating accumulation of new knowledge accelerates change in the economy which raises the demand for employees who are good at learning. If accelerating change in the economy had not increased the demand for people who are good at learning, then the huge increase in the percentage of school-leavers who go on to graduate from higher education in recent decades would have long since eliminated the graduate premium.

    Developing a disposition to learn

    According to the new vocationalism (NV) the best way of preparing students for employment in graduate jobs is to develop their powers of learning and their disposition to learn. Developing a student's powers of learning is explicitly addressed in Bourner (2009) and touched on at various points in this paper. This section looks at students' inclination to learn.

    'Keenness to learn' is rarely explored in the graduate employability literature despite the fact that there are clues that it is highly valued by graduate employers. On those rare occasions when it is included in lists of desirable graduate attributes it scores highly. For example, in the survey results shown in table 1 'willingness to learn' got top billing. Perhaps its neglect in the graduate employability literature reflects a belief that there is little universities can do to affect this factor. Perhaps it is a taken-for-granted assumption that all graduates are willing to learn. Such an assumption certainly seems reasonable; those who are unwilling to learn are unlikely to submit themselves to degree courses of 3+ years of full-time study or a much longer part-time equivalent.

    However, it is also reasonable to suppose that inclination to learn varies across the student population. At one end of the spectrum are students who love to learn and at the other end are students who will only learn if tangible incentives are strong enough. According to NV, graduate employability will be higher for those graduates who can signal that not only are they highly capable learners but also they are keen to learn.

    How can a university help students to signal to potential employers that they have a high propensity to learn? They can help students develop their inclination to learn and they can help them provide effective signals of this to graduate employers. The nature of such help is addressed below.

    The value of A-level results to graduates

    The fact that some graduate employers place weight on A-level results of graduates can seem perplexing. Degree results are more current than A-level results that are at least 3 years older and degree results are therefore better indicators of the knowledge, skills and attitudes possessed by a university graduate. Some commentators explain such 'irrational' behaviour as the result of ignorance by people who themselves need to be educated:

    "There is also the process of educating some of the professional and statutory bodies in the issues to be addressed as in a number of instances they have developed membership or accreditation criteria based on graduate entry but determined by the initial 'A level' points score. Many involved in HE find it somewhat surprising that such bodies focus on the 'raw material' and not the 'finished product', thereby totally ignoring the educational process." (Layer, 2004, p. 13)

    NV offers an explanation for graduate employers' interest in graduate A-level results and predicts the kind of graduate jobs for which A-level results are likely to be relevant. Graduate jobs which require a significant amount of the sort of (planned) learning that occurs in schools will place more weight on A-levels in the recruitment process than those that place relatively more weight on experiential learning. It would therefore not be surprising to find that accounting firms recruiting graduates would place more weight on A-level results than firms recruiting graduates to general management schemes, since graduate accounting trainees will be required to study for accounting qualifications with pre-specified learning outcomes and sit the sort of examinations for which A-level performance conveys predictive information. More generally, most weight is placed on A-level results by employers recruiting to those graduate jobs which lead to study for professional qualifications in ways that bear most resemblance to school study and examinations. NV therefore predicts that most weight will be attached to A-level scores in the recruitment of graduates to jobs that involve further study for professional examinations.

    Next: Some Implications