One of the biggest concerns that universities have in respect of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is the explicit link it makes between destinations and quality of teaching. The concern is this: if a graduate ends up struggling to find work in a graduate job after they complete their studies, or ends up in an occupation that is completely unconnected to their field of study, how much does this actually tell us about the quality of teaching?
The answer to this question could well be nothing at all. It is entirely possible for a university to have great facilities and wonderful teaching, yet for a graduate to still come out the other end struggling to find work. But since TEF explicitly makes the connection, it begs the question of what, if anything, universities can do to mitigate the possibility of students graduating and then failing to gain employment?
Why the Concern With Employability?
To answer this, we first need to look at why TEF makes the link in the first place. According to the Government’s White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, universities have a “paramount place in an economy driven by knowledge and ideas”, and they “generate know-how and skills that fuel our growth”. However, currently this is not being maximised, to the detriment of both employers and students:
“Employers are suffering skills shortages, especially in high skilled STEM areas; at the same time around 20% of employed graduates are in non-professional roles three and a half years after graduating.”
The Government’s aim in making employability a specific criterion within the TEF framework is to close this gap, with the hope that it will lead to employers getting graduates with the right skills, as well as helping students make more informed choices about which institutions and courses will maximise their employability:
“By increasing transparency and making better use of public data than ever before, we will shine a light on the employability outcomes of courses and institutions for students to evaluate alongside other considerations. We hope this will also be used by providers evaluating their provision and considering how they can tailor it to better deliver relevant skills for the labour market.”
Employment or Employability?
Yet there is a question as to whether this approach confuses employment and employability. In a piece for WonkHE back in 2015, Jonnny Rich argued that this is exactly what is happening:
“We shouldn’t be measuring employment. We should measure employability. They’re not the same. When employment falls, such as in a recession, employability often rises as people acquire new knowledge or skills to make themselves more competitive. Employability is the ability to get, keep and succeed in jobs you want – both now and in the future as the economy shifts.”
In other words, there is a gap between graduate employment – the simple fact of a graduate being in work or not – and graduate employability – which Mr Rich goes on to argue consists of knowledge, social capital, and skills. A university might be churning out extremely employable people – knowledgeable, skillful and with excellent social capital – yet if there are no jobs available that require their particular knowledge and skills, the chances are they will not find employment, at least not in their field of study.
Bridging the Gap Between Employability and Employment
It would be tempting to think that this gap between employability and employment can’t be bridged, and that the TEF employability measures are entirely arbitrary. After all, if there aren’t any jobs, there aren’t any jobs. Yet if we really grasp what this gap actually is, we find that bridging it is indeed a possibility.
Take two people, Debbie and Lawrence. Both graduate with broadly the same level of employability: they have the same degree, the same skills and knowledge, the same job attributes. Yet whilst Debbie lands a job in her chosen field within six months of graduating, Lawrence cannot find employment in a similar career, and so ends up looking for work in an entirely unrelated occupation. The difference between the two? Nothing to do with employability, but entirely down to the fact that demand for such positions was high in Debbie’s region, but low in Lawrence’s region.
The gap between employability and employment is therefore basically one of demand, and so it follows that the university that understands demand is in a better position to build the bridge that will help their students get to employment on the other side. This understanding can be achieved through good use of local Labour Market Insight (LMI). Using LMI to identify occupational and industrial needs at the regional level has a threefold application:
Firstly, it means that a university can better understand the needs of employers
Secondly, it enables them to better align their course portfolio with those needs
Thirdly, it means that they can demonstrate to their prospective students the link between their degrees and associated careers at the end of their studies
By including employability in the TEF, the Government is showing that it is looking for universities to do more to help their students get into the kind of sustainable work to which their knowledge and skills most closely match. However, the problem universities face is that there is not necessarily a correlation between employability and employment.
The gap between these two concepts can basically be explained as job demand, and so the key to bridging the gap is to better understand the needs of employers. Using LMI, understanding these needs and responding to them becomes possible – something that benefits employers, who get more people with the right skills coming through; students, whose chances of finding appropriate employment are improved; and the university itself, which can evidence in the TEF how it is working hard to improve the employability of its students.
In part 2, we’ll be delving down into some of our data to show how universities can put this into practice.
If you would like to discuss how we can help your university bridge the gap between employability and employment, contact Lawrence Stephenson at email@example.com