Employability ‘mantra’ supplanting higher education’s ‘inner core’

Focus on jobs and commercialisation inconsistent with sector’s ‘intrinsic purposes’, says Simon Marginson

March 27, 2023
Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at University of Oxford

The adoption of employability as a “universal measure of value” is forcing “the square peg” of higher education into “a round economic hole”, according to University of Oxford higher education researcher Simon Marginson.

Professor Marginson told a Melbourne symposium that public discussion about higher education overwhelmingly focused on its “extrinsic” role as a provider of occupational qualifications.

This overlooked its “intrinsic” purposes of educating students and disseminating knowledge – the “classical inner core” of higher education, which was about learning and knowledge for their “own sake”.

On the learning side, the primary functions were to help students become socialised, “self-realising” people. But government policy and media discourse focused on extrinsic functions such as preparing students for the professions.

“While the inner intrinsic purposes of higher education can be achieved without the extrinsic applications being brought into the picture, the reverse is not true,” Professor Marginson said. Nevertheless, this was being attempted through initiatives like microcredentials and Australia’s Job-ready Graduates reforms.

“In the UK, the Teaching Excellence Framework sought to evaluate and measure teaching and learning in terms of graduate earnings and student satisfaction,” he told the symposium, hosted by the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education. “Programmes associated with relatively low average graduate salaries are now highly vulnerable.

“That, of course, includes teaching and nursing. Using graduate salaries as the sole measure of value…means ignoring rationales [such as] self-formation and socialisation and…the public good.”

It also ignored higher education’s limitations. “Efficient training in skills and employability doesn’t occur in higher education; it occurs on the job,” Professor Marginson said. “Even in many occupational courses, transition to the workplace is challenging and takes time – typically three to six months, sometimes longer.

“To press education and work into a single process, either by treating them as essentially the same or subordinating one to the other, is to violate either work or higher education. No prizes for guessing which one is more vulnerable.”

He said employability had become an ideological “mantra” for the sector. “This could be fatal to the cultural practice of higher education…[but] government wants to push an existing system towards this ideal. It’s not going to work.”

Equally problematic was a view of university research as a wealth generator. “Many in government want higher education to focus only on research that industry wants – they see no value in any other kind of knowledge.

“Higher education has many active relations with industry. It conducts applied research, it builds industry capacity by training researchers, and it links to global developments in science and technology. However…universities focus on capacity and performance in science, and are marginal to the capital flows and risk-taking driving innovation in industry.”

Professor Marginson said that while Australian science breakthroughs tended to be commercialised elsewhere, the reverse also applied. “Most…innovations of local industry come from creative sources outside Australia.

“There’s simply no…linear relationship between national science and national innovation. After decades of science policy all this should be obvious.”

He said a longstanding feature of global higher education, originating in the imperial academies of China’s Western Zhou dynasty, faced an existential threat. “Will higher education continue to educate students as self-realising agents via immersion in knowledge, as it has for 3,000 years? Or will it be forced to rely solely for its existence on employability? Will its autonomy and heterogeneity survive? Question mark.”


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Reader's comments (3)

A voice of reason. Sadly Governments are not listening and obsession with audits and leagues tables is suffocating the sector, destroying intellectual thought and damaging creativity. Universities are no longer what they used to be and are unlikely ever to return to their true purpose.
In the UK, when the vocational training focused polytechnics were granted university status, there was a worry that this would mean that proper training would disappear, and everyone would only ever try to get an academic education. However, the opposite has happened. Rather than the polys becoming more like older universities, the older universities are being forced to be more like polys.
Whilst employability is important, and for the students I teach it is one of the main reasons they choose to go to University, it is absolutely right that universities need to remember their core purpose is to act in the public interest for the benefit of society. Garry Carnegie's paper here https://www.academia.edu/s/3f02dc56b0#comment_1270188 discusses the effect that the KPIs such as employability KPIS have on universities and it is frightening....


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