Employability: An existential crisis for higher education

Recently Dirk Van Damme, former head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, questioned the expansion of participation in higher education in International Higher Education.

“There are pressing signs that high levels of university attainment do not have only positive effects on societies and economies,” Van Damme stated, noting “graduate underemployment, overqualification, mismatches and substitution effects”. More promising, he said, is “the rapidly expanding interest in short programmes and non-traditional certifications such as microcredentials”.

Van Damme’s OECD colleague Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for education and skills, agrees. Microcredentials “get employers better signals of what people know and can do”, he argued in London in March 2023, again comparing them favourably with universities. For universities, life is “actually very comfortable”, he said. “You bundle content, delivery, accreditation – you can get quite a nice monopoly rent.”

Shifting to microcredentials would mean that provider status no longer matters. It seems that microcredentials are the new route to equity. It is hard to believe that combining degrees for the middle class with microcredentials for the masses is going to create social equity, but evidence is mounting that economically inclined policy-makers are losing patience with higher education as we know it.

The United Kingdom’s Teaching Excellence Framework compares the quality of student learning in different institutions and disciplines on the basis of graduate salaries. It has stigmatised some programmes as “low value courses” because graduate salaries are below average.

In Australia, the national government calls for “job-ready graduates” and has funded the development of programmes leading to microcredentials. In each case the diagnosis of the problem and the solution are the same. Higher education should be primarily (or solely) and directly vocational. The idea of “job-ready graduates” sums this up.

But higher education is not fit for this particular purpose. Preparation for work is one of its missions, but it has never been the core mission. Still less is it the only mission.

Higher education is not primarily the formation of ‘employable’ graduates. It is the cultural formation of persons through immersion in discipline-based knowledge. Students are formed – or rather, form themselves – through deep learning in various academic and professional fields. It is knowledge, not employability, that unifies higher education.

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