CGHE Webinar 349

Intrinsic higher education and the threat of the employability mantra

Date: Thursday, 20 April 2023 2:00 pm - 3:00 pm
Location: Zoom webinar, registration required

Event Materials

This event is now archived and we are pleased to provide the following event media and assets, along with the original event overview.

Higher education has two sets of purposes, intrinsic and extrinsic. The intrinsic or inner purposes can be wholly carried by agents within the institution. With the extrinsic purposes, agency is shared between agents within the institution and other agents outside the institution, such as employers and government. The intrinsic purposes are the classical core of higher education: the formation of students as autonomous persons (what Get Biesta calls ‘subjectification’); and the transmission, creation and dissemination of knowledge, activities which have become joined. Educational formation is immersion in knowledge, and faculty labour is fashioned as a teaching/research nexus. This essentially cultural assemblage has shaped the distinctive internal organisation of the sector, and its reproduction. Teaching and learning, and scholarship and research, are grounded in epistemic disciplines, study programmes and departments/schools. The extrinsic purposes constitute the external social roles played by higher education, its institutions and agents. This extrinsic domain includes higher education’s role in forming and unequally allocating social status, its role in preparing students for work, the professions and occupations, and applications of higher education to such areas as industry innovation, and regional development. Whereas is the case of the intrinsic purposes, value is determined on academic grounds, in the case of the extrinsic purposes the social partners share in defining and determining value. However, while the inner intrinsic purposes of higher education can be achieved without the extrinsic applications, the reverse is not true. The capacity of higher education institutions to fulfil their extrinsic purposes rests on their intrinsic capabilities in education and knowledge.

In recent years in higher education policy and public debate, one of the extrinsic purposes of higher education, its role as preparatory for graduate work, occupations and professions, has come to dominate in the governance of higher education in many countries. The intrinsic subjectification function is central to the lifelong benefits that students gain from higher education, to their personal agency and capability in shaping their lives, at work and everywhere else, but economically-minded governments seem scarcely aware that this function exists. Economic policy models the student as a consumer and self-investor and defines the graduate in extrinsic economic terms as a unit of human capital with a market value. This forces the square peg of higher education into a round economic hole for which it is unfitted. The primary purpose of higher education is now said to be the production of ‘employable’ graduates. In UK the Teaching Excellence Framework sought to evaluate and measure teaching and learning not in terms of what is learned, let alone the contribution of higher education to self-development, but in terms of graduate earnings, and student satisfaction in consumer surveys. The notion of ‘low value courses’ has taken hold: programmes associated with relatively low average graduate salaries. This ignores all the other factors that shape earnings, and ignores the rationales for those programmes in self-formation, socialisation and the public good (e.g. nursing). Australia has ‘job ready graduates’ and micro credentials. The transition to work is to be shortened by truncating the intrinsic educational experiences of students.

This is a case of irresistible force and immoveable object. Employability has taken on the character of an irresistible force because, thanks to the influential human capital theory narrative, it has become embedded in mass participation in higher education with considerable moral authority. Everybody wants a job, and many people rightly see work as a human right. Yet higher education is an immoveable object, because its core functions in student learning and development, knowledge and research are woven into every aspect of its internal culture and organisation. Higher education does not in itself create job opportunities and productivity, which depend on many other factors. The employability mantra has no sound foundation. But at present governments and the public media exhibit strong belief in the human capital narrative and this conditions popular expectations of the sector. A clash between an irresistible force and an immoveable object is destabilising because it cannot be resolved. That is why this is an existential crisis for higher education, one that is deeply threatening to it. Eventually, either public expectations about employability will give way to a more nuanced policy – or alternatively, the intrinsic core of higher education, which has been notably malleable throughout its history, joining effectively to many different extrinsic agendas and social projects, will reach the limits of its flexibility and be broken up from outside.

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