A New Vocationalism

Introduction

    The starting point for this paper was an enquiry into changes in the pattern of the first destinations of university graduates across the four decades since data was first published (Bourner and Rospigliosi, 2008).  The headline finding of that study was that in the 1960s about six out of 10 graduates remained within the education system1 after graduation and now that ratio is down to about three out of 10.  The large majority now find jobs in the other sectors, including industry, wholesale/retail, financial services, other commerce and public services other than education.  Another finding was that the percentage of students who were still unemployed six months after graduating was only about three percent in the 1960s.  Since that time there has been a rising trend in the percentage of new graduates who are unemployed or employed in so-called 'non-graduate' jobs.  Universities have responded by placing more weight on the development of employability and work-readiness in university education.  A central part of that response has been increased emphasis on the development of employability skills (King, 2009).

    Evidence of increased unemployment and underemployment of new graduates has prompted concern about possible over-supply of graduates.  This is of particular concern to government, universities and the students themselves.  Government believes that educating more people to higher levels supports the material well-being of the population as a whole2. Evidence of graduate unemployment and underemployment serves, of course, to undermine that belief.

    Universities are concerned that graduate unemployment reflects poorly on their performance.  Graduate employment is one of the factors that is used to compile league tables of university performance and at the end of the 1990s HEFCE developed a graduate employability performance indicator which impacts on decisions about the funding received by different universities. 

    Students and potential students are concerned about increased graduate unemployment and underemployment because an important reason for most students acquiring a university education is to enhance their employment prospects.

    Consequently, the secular rise in the unemployment and underemployment of new graduates over the last forty years has generated pressure on universities and within universities to give more weight to graduate employability in university education.  This pressure has not however been steady, mirroring the secular trend but rather it has followed the year-by-year variations in evidence of new graduate unemployment and underemployment. When unemployment rises in the economy it is amplified amongst new entrants to the labour force whether they be school-leavers or university graduates.  Hence the timing of the pressure to give more weight to graduate employability in university education tends to be strongest in economic downturns.  The pressure was intense in the early 1980s when graduate unemployment rose to unprecedented levels.  It was intense again in the early 1990s when rapid expansion of graduate numbers caused graduate unemployment to peak again.  And it has increased with higher graduate unemployment associated with the banking-led recession of 2008/09.

    Such pressure from government has included a range of publicly-funded projects intended to stimulate the development of graduate employability skills within university education, starting with the 'Enterprise in Higher Education Initiative' in the 1980s.

    Universities have sought to develop skills for graduate employment primarily through introducing free-standing course units or by integrating skills development within existing courses.  In many cases the stand-alone courses are provided by staff located in the university careers advisory units or academic development (learning and teaching) units i.e. staff located outside  the students' own departments or schools.

    This paper looks at the development of employability skills as a response to the unemployment and underemployment of new graduates.  It makes the case that this is a weak strategy and suggests a different approach which has more support from the available evidence on graduate employment, unemployment and underemployment.

    Next: Skills for graduate employment: a critical appraisal