A New Vocationalism

A new vocationalism: a different approach to graduate employability

    The aim of this section is to find an approach to graduate employment that is more effective than trying to develop employability skills within universities. In order to do so, our starting point is not the words of graduate employers but their actions as reflected in the data on university graduate employment, unemployment and underemployment.

    We are not the first to question the rhetoric of graduate employers and its relationship with actual recruitment and personnel policies in practice:

    "However, employers' 'wish lists' should not be taken at face value. Teichler (1997) questions whether employer statements should be interpreted as providing direct and objective information concerning demand in the employment system, noting that such statements are often inconsistent with actual recruitment and personnel policies and practices." (The Pedagogy for employability Group, 2006, p. 4)

    We start by the na´ve observation that graduate employers do advertise vacancies that specify that applicants must be graduates. We also observe that in most years most graduate job vacancies are open to graduates of any subject1. And we observe that, on average, employers are prepared to pay a premium to recruit graduates. This raises the question, what do graduate employers get from graduates that they don't get from non-graduates? What is the difference about graduates that makes the difference?

    The defining difference between graduates and non-graduates is that the former have acquired the knowledge, skills and attitudes of a university education and a proven ability and willingness to learn. Our next step is to unpack that definition to look for the difference that makes the difference to graduate employers.

    The knowledge What knowledge have graduates acquired from their university education that employers value? New graduates should have up-to-date knowledge of the subject of their degree. How important is it that this knowledge is as up-to-date as possible? Clearly it is valuable to some employers. However, it is only a small minority of graduate employers who really seek the most up-to-date knowledge of an academic subject (e.g. universities seeking academic staff and organisations with research labs) and they are more likely to be recruiting graduates with Masters degrees (or even PhDs) than graduates with first degrees only.

    Most employers of most graduates are not very concerned about how up-to-date is the academic knowledge of the students they recruit. It turns out that most employers of graduates are not even very concerned about the subject of the degree at all. The evidence for this statement is the fact that most (around two-thirds in some years) vacancies for graduates each year ask for graduates of any subject at all.

    "Of course, there are many students who find employment in an area directly related to their degree courses. Engineers become engineers, medical students become physicians, some linguists become interpreters and translators … But it is also true that every year between 40 percent and 70 percent of all graduate vacancies ask for a degree in any discipline because the knowledge content of the student's degree is immaterial to the position." (Roberts. 2006, p. 12)

    The skills The skills that are particularly associated with a good university education are: (1) the ability to think critically, (2) the ability to write for an academic audience and (3) subject-specific skills that support a particular academic discipline such as maths to support a degree in physics, Old English to support some degrees in English literature and so on.

    The skill that is most prized within most universities is the ability to test assumptions, assertions, arguments and conclusions i.e. the ability to think critically. In the words of Sir Douglas Hague, long-time chair of the Economic and Social Research Council:

    "Academics must believe that acquiring the ability to test ideas and evidence is the primary benefit of a university education." (Hague, 1991, p.64)

    Most graduate employers, however, place less value on this skill of critical thinking than university academics. For example, in the large and systematic study of what graduate employers look for in graduate recruits that produced table 1, the employers were asked to assess the importance they attached to each of a list of 62 graduate attributes and 'critical ability' ranked 32 behind such items as dependability, co-operation, drive, self-management, flexibility, initiative, time management, self-confidence, persistence, planning ability, ability with information technology.

    The ability to write for an academic audience is a skill that is vital to those going on to become professional academics. Students spend time, for example, learning how to structure an academic paper and reference sources correctly. However, most graduate employers do not particularly value the ability to write in an academic way. In fact, some see this as something to be 'unlearned' as new graduate employees acquire alternative communication skills such as writing business reports, executive summaries and other forms of organisational communication which require rather different abilities.

    That leaves the subject-specific skills i.e. skills that support an academic subject (such as statistics to underpin a degree in economics or lab skills to support a degree in Chemistry). As the majority of graduate employers place little value on knowledge of any specific graduate subject they are not very likely, in most cases, to place too much value on the subject-specific skills that support the knowledge of a specific academic subject.

    Graduate attitudes A good university education seeks to develop a questioning attitude, disinterested enquiry and objective impartiality. Again, the belief that these attitudes are prioritised by graduate employers has not been supported by studies of what graduates look for in graduate recruits. In fact, if anything, they seem to prefer attitudes towards the other end of the 'disinterested observer' spectrum such as commitment and proactivity.

    What's left? If it’s not the knowledge, skills and attitudes that graduates bring with them by virtue of their university education then what is it that the majority of graduate employers value in graduate employees enough to pay them a 'graduate premium'?

    What's left is their proven ability to learn and their willingness to do so. There are many terms that express the aptitude of graduates for learning: 'graduates are quicker learners', 'graduates know how to learn', 'graduates find it easier to learn', 'graduates are better at learning' and so on.

    Why do graduate employers expect that, on balance, graduate recruits will be better than non-graduates at learning? Because they have had to demonstrate an aptitude for learning to be accepted onto a university degree course i.e. they have had to satisfy entry requirements that test their ability and willingness to learn at school Also, they have spent the whole of their undergraduate years, at least three years of full-time study (or full-time equivalent), in which they are required to do little else than learn: they are specialists in the practice of learning.

    Not only have graduates spent at least 3 years more than school-leavers honing up their learning faculties but the processes of learning at university are different from school in ways that develop students' capacities to plan and manage their own learning.

    As one moves up the education ladder there is a steady increase in the amount of self-direction of student learning. Many of us can remember chanting multiplication tables in primary school under the instruction of teachers who specified what we learned and how we learned and supervised the learning process itself, in that case repetition through chanting. In secondary school students have more freedom to decide how they will learn and more so at the top (A-level classes) than at the bottom (year 7 classes).

    In higher education there is more freedom still; students choose what they will study in higher education from an extensive range of subjects and have much discretion about how they study. In other words, new students at university find that higher education is more self-directed than school education. Moreover, it becomes even more self-directed as students pass from first year through intermediate levels towards graduation. Universities tend to provide most academic direction and support to first year students as most of them are making the transition from school to university (or from work to university, in the case of mature students). The amount of academic direction is normally reduced at intermediate levels and at the final level of undergraduate education students often have to undertake a dissertation unit which they are expected to plan and manage from start to finish. At Masters level, they are expected to require even less supervision of their learning than at undergraduate level. And at the highest level of all, doctoral level, students not only plan and manage their own learning they also determine the intended learning outcomes i.e. what they aim to discover through their research. In other words, a university education is intended to develop the capacity to plan and manage their own learning without supervision by teachers. If a university has done its job well then its graduates are able to plan and manage their own learning.

    "…our ultimate goal in higher education must be to encourage students to be responsible for, and in control of their own learning …" (Zuber-Skerrett, 1992, p. 24)

    In summary, graduate employers can reasonably expect that on average university graduates will be better at learning than non-graduates for three reasons: (1) graduates have had to satisfy university entry requirements that test their ability and willingness to learn at school, (2) graduates have spent 3+ years specialising in learning and honing up their learning faculties and (3) university degrees are usually structured in a way that develops students’ capacity to plan and manage their own learning.

    Graduate employers are looking for graduates who are prepared to learn and the term 'prepared to learn' can be unpacked into 'able and willing to learn'. Ability to learn and willingness to learn go together. People who are good at learning tend to be more willing to learn because the cost (mostly in terms of time and effort) of learning is lower for them and because people tend to enjoy doing what they are good at. The correlation is not, of course, perfect; not everyone who is good at learning is disposed to do so and not everyone who enjoys learning is brilliant at it. The bottom line, however, is that graduate employers can be reasonably sure that, on balance, graduate employees are more able to learn and more willing to learn than non-graduates and that is the difference that makes the difference.

    Next: 'Old vocationalism' and 'new vocationalism' compared