A New Vocationalism

Some Implications

The main conclusion of this paper is that the primary reason that most graduate employers recruit graduates is that graduate employees have a higher propensity to learn in their employment than non-graduates. From this perspective, graduate employability depends critically on graduates' powers of learning and their ability to convince potential employers that they have highly developed powers of learning. This has many implications:

1. Vocational higher education and traditional university education are often seen to be pulling universities in different directions. Traditional university education is focused on equipping students with the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will enable them to contribute to the advancement of an academic subject discipline. By contrast, vocational higher education is focused on equipping students with knowledge, skills and attitudes to enhance their employability in the graduate labour market. To the extent that vocational higher education is centred on developing the employability skills of students, the perception that these are divergent forces is accurate because time devoted to developing knowledge of the world of work, teamworking skills and entrepreneurial attitudes etc, is time taken from subject-centred studies. On the other hand, enhancing students' powers of learning serves the goals of both subject advancement and student employability. Students with enhanced powers of learning are in a better position to contribute to the advancement of an academic subject just as they are in a better position to contribute to an employing organisation. Enhancing students powers of learning is a way of resolving the divergent forces of vocational higher education and traditional university education.

2. In recent years a third force has emerged in higher education; it is to equip university students for lifelong learning. A growing awareness in the 1990s of the accelerating pace of change in technology, the economy, society and in employment led to growing awareness of the need for lifelong learning (Brown, 2009). It was increasingly recognised that the 'half-life' of knowledge and skills acquired in institutions of higher education was declining and this implies a need to prepare students for continuing learning throughout their lives. Some university academics saw this as an opportunity for universities such that graduates would return at intervals throughout their lives to be topped up with the latest knowledge (e.g., Watson and Taylor, 1998). Others saw that the real need was to develop students’ abilities to plan and manage their own learning after university. In other words, as well as being subject-centred and vocationally-relevant there was increasing pressure for a university education to prepare students for lifelong learning. This third goal was the third force in HE which university teachers felt as a pull in yet another direction.

We have seen that enhancing students’ powers of learning resolves the dilemma posed by meeting the goals of providing a traditional academic university education and a vocationally-relevant education. On reflection, it also addresses the goal of preparing students for lifelong learning. Enhancing students powers of learning not only increases their employability in graduate jobs and their fitness to contribute to the development of their academic subject, it also equips them to continue their learning after university and across their lifespan.

3. Our conclusion that the root cause of graduate employability is enhanced capacity to learn has significant implications for government. The pressure in the 1990s to include the goal of preparing students for lifelong learning came mainly from government. The underlying reason that government provides funding support for university education is because it believes that university graduates contribute to the material well-being of the population as a whole. This is the classic 'social benefit' rationale for subsidising an activity. This belief is relevant to the conclusion of this paper in the following way: national economic growth is limited by the pace of change in the economy which, in turn, is limited by the ability of the people as a whole to learn and make the most of the opportunities afforded by the growing accumulation of knowledge. In other words, a university education that places more emphasis on learning capacity is one that supports faster advance in the material well-being of society which is a core aim of government. A higher education that puts more weight on developing students' powers of learning is therefore likely to be welcomed by government and hence attract government support.

4. For universities there are considerable implications. First, and foremost is the need to emphasise enhancement of the students' powers of learning. A university that develops students' capacity and inclination to learn not only enhances their employability but also their ability to contribute to the advancement of knowledge and also prepares them for lifelong learning. Developing students' capacity to learn and disposition to learn should therefore be emphasised in institutional learning and teaching strategies.

What can a university do to enhance its students' powers of learning? It can ensure that new students are very clear that university education will be unlike school; in particular, university education will be more self-directed. It can focus learning instruction and direction on newly-arrived students and withdraw it in a planned way over the students' undergraduate careers so that the students take increasing responsibility for planning and managing their own learning. It can ensure that the final year of undergraduate study contains at least one course unit of independent study, i.e. study where the student has responsibility for setting the learning outcomes, the means of achieving them and the means (and criteria) of assessment1. More radical methods of developing students’ powers of learning are explored in Bourner (2009).

What can universities do to develop students' inclination to learn? They can try to make the learning experience enjoyable and rewarding for the students. They can model enthusiasm for learning (Greener 2009). They can encourage students to study the subjects that most interest and excite them as this will stimulate their learning inclinations. They can facilitate transfers between courses where possible to capitalise on emerging interests in particular fields of study. And they can seek to develop a love of learning. Developing students' love of learning for its own sake is often viewed as being in opposition to developing graduate employability. The NV approach suggests that this is a false dichotomy.

What can universities do to help students identify signals to graduate employers that they are keen to learn? They can ensure students realise the importance of conveying their keenness to continue learning when they communicate with potential employers, especially through CVs and interviews. Also they can help students explore their experience to date to identify past activities and achievements that indicate a high propensity to learn and continue learning.

In addition to the learning and teaching strategies at the level of the whole university and their implementation at the level of individual departments and courses, there are also implications for other parts of the university. Students need to be supported in acquiring expertise in writing CVs that signal their powers of learning and their keenness to learn in different situations and circumstances. This seems to be a natural task for Careers Advisory staff in universities. The point is that it is not just a matter of producing a 'good CV' it is a matter of producing a 'graduate CV' which is one that emphasises evidence of capacity and disposition to learn in the broadest sense of that word.

There are implications also for education development (learning and teaching) units in universities. If there is to be increased emphasis on developing students' powers of learning this is bound to enhance the position of that part of the university that has most expertise, experience and knowledge about learning processes and learning development. Educational development units would receive more requests for advice on the educational development of students to enhance their powers of learning.

5. There are many implications for students. The main conclusion of this paper for students is that they can best enhance the likelihood of finding graduate employment by signaling to graduate employers that they are capable, versatile learners who are keen to learn in whatever circumstances they find themselves. How can they do this? Most obviously, they can get the best degree of which they are capable. This is a clear signal to employers about their powers of learning and the first destinations data shows a significant positive relationship between class of degree and the percentage of students finding employment within 6 months of graduating. They can provide evidence of achievements that require substantial learning (such as holding a significant office in the student union). They can provide evidence of willingness to place themselves in situations that demand new learning (such as backpacking in countries very different from their own). They can get the kind of work experience that involves much new learning (such as a substantial and significant volunteering project). These are all signals on a student's CV that convey information about the student's ability and willingness to learn in different circumstances.


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