International network of philosophers of education

  • Amanda Fulford (Participant)

    Activity: Academic conference/seminar/workshopConference (academic)


    ‘Being Employed’: Re-Thinking Employability Discourses in the University This paper considers the increasingly influential issue of graduate employability in the contemporary university. Evidence of the perceived importance of graduate employability, particularly in the UK, is apparent from universities’ web, and social media sites, as well as in marketing materials. Academics are charged with ‘delivering employability’ in order to secure institutions’ high rankings in national and international league tables of employability. While employability, at least in its current iterations in Higher Education, is a relatively recent phenomenon, the paper traces its origins in the UK to the 1997 Dearing Report. But it also suggests that employability is an issue not only for English, or even European universities; it is a complex, and a global phenomenon to which universities are responding in different ways in Europe (Schmidt and Gibbs 2009), Asia (Tran 2015), the United States (Zinser 2003), and in Australia (Jackson and Chapman 2012). The paper outlines a similarly complex set of definitions for ‘employability’. Using the example of a university dentistry course, it is suggested that employability must suggest more than simply job-specific skills. Students on such a course must acquire the clinical skills (for extractions, fillings and so on), and generic skills (communication, and record keeping). But we might also expect a dentist to display empathy, trust, honesty, confidentiality and so on; and these might also be thought of as employability skills. Employability, then, seems best described as a complex combination of discipline-specific skills, generic skills, and attributes, as suggested in Mantz Yorke and Peter Knight’s widely used definition: [Employability skills comprise] a set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that make graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy (2006: 3). Being ‘in employ’ The paper then moves to suggest that something significant is missing from the current employability debate, which attention to the etymology of the word can reveal. It draws on the early fifteenth century understanding of ‘employ’ (oneself to something) with its meaning of devoting (oneself to a particular purpose). From the Latin implicare, the sense of being involved, being connected with, being united, or associated with – literally ‘folded in’ (in and plicare, to fold) is also suggested. To be ‘in employ’ also gives us the sense of how we are implicated in our work. The etymology, then, points to how we might understand differently the concept of employability. The paper works with this distinction between ‘being in employment’ (in the sense of being in a salaried job of work, or having the employability skills to do so), and ‘being employed’. It suggests that this distinction disrupts the everyday understanding of what employability has come to mean in Higher Education. The paper draws attention to how universities’ engagement with employability tends to focus almost exclusively on future preparation of students for graduate employment after study. It shows how employability is understood as preparedness (in terms of skills, attributes and positioning), for what is to come. The etymology of ‘employ’, however, allows us to re-think employability in terms of ‘being employed’. This subtle distinction leads to a radically different understanding: one that first shifts the temporal focus away from the future and back to the present, and second, that highlights the significance of being present in one’s work. Thoreau, accounting and labour In order to highlight the significance of ‘being employed’ further, the paper then turns to the work of the 19th century American essayist and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, and his text, Walden, (1854). The discussion shows how Walden’s significance is not to be seen in readings of it as a call to reject society, as a turn towards a kind of individualism, or as the story of an ascetic’s life in a rural idyll. This would be to misunderstand the significance of Walden as a book, and of Thoreau’s intention during his time at Walden Pond. Rather, it is argued that what is significant is the distinction between Thoreau’s work during his time in the woods, and how he was employed there. The paper finds that the latter concept is especially useful for understanding discourses of employability in the university. It gives attention to the nature of Thoreau’s work (the labour of building his hut, tending his bean field, surveying the pond, and writing his book), but also how he was employed in his ‘experiment in living’ (p. 47). This experiment is a work on the self, and an accounting for that work. Paul Standish puts it like this: ‘If the book is his record or account of his time at Walden, it is also the means by which he accounts for himself, showing in the process what counts for him’ (2006: 147). Thoreau and ‘being employed’: Devotion, connection and implication The paper proceeds by considering a number of passages from Walden that serve to illustrate how Thoreau was employed during his two years in the woods. These extracts are used to illustrate three aspects of how he was employed in his experiment in living, and how these relate to the etymology of the word ‘employ’. The paper considers, through attention to extracts of the text, first how Thoreau was devoted to his work; second, how he was connected to his community, and third, how he was implicated in his work. These examples are used to argue a central point: while the etymology of ‘work’ and ‘employ’ lead us towards a distinction, one that seems to be illustrated in Thoreau’s account of how he lived at Walden Pond, and what he lived for, the issue is perhaps not as dichotomous as the language at first suggests. Taking the example of Thoreau’s account of his agricultural work in his bean field, the paper argues that in this work, he was also employed (in the etymological sense) in it. His employment is shown by his being present in his work. Thoreau seems to be advocating a closeness to our endeavours, a presence in our work. This is what it means to be employed or connected in our work. The example of his work in the bean field serves as a pertinent illustration of how he was brought closer to his work, and so he writes that through this employment: ‘I came to know how I stood in the agricultural world’ (p. 142). Re-thinking employability in Higher Education The paper concludes by arguing that the temporal aspects of employability in higher education seem rarely to be considered; yet students are exhorted to acquire these abilities in the present, in order to ensure a smoother transition to a yet unknown future. Employability seems to be focussed on a looking toward, on a future, rather than an attention to what it is to be employed (in studying one’s subject) in the present. The paper suggests that it is through the very practices of being present in one’s subject, through the careful attention to it, that the very skills likely to be of value to employers, are developed. This argument does not reject the possibility of a university addressing issues employability. It does, though, suggest a different way of approaching it that is achieved through valuing attention to one’s work – through being employed in it. This has implications both for what it means to study one’s subject in Higher Education, and for the way that employability is perceived, and addressed. Thoreau’s account of his time at Walden Pond depicts a man who, though deliberately employed in his experiment in living, was not separately acquiring the practical skills and attributes that would make him employable when he returned to town of Concord. Rather, it was through attention to the experiment itself - through devotion to the very tasks that took him to the woods - that he was able to leave the woods. Perhaps it is not insignificant that only after his time there was he offered employment as the Town Surveyor (Chura 2010). This reading of Walden suggests one significant way in which contemporary Higher Education might re-think the issue of student employability. This is in terms of an emphasis, or a re-emphasis, on the student’s chosen subject. Being employed in one’s subject requires an attention to it in the present. It demands a devotion and a perseverance that teaches students to enquire well, to recognise the limits of their own knowledge, and the unlimited potential of the subject matter studied. This kind of engagement with one’s subject is not limited by the prescription of learning outcomes or session objectives. But this is a real danger where employability is explicitly ‘taught’ or crudely embedded, the result is, one’s education is at risk of being understood in instrumental, procedural terms, to the neglect of one’s substantive subject. But it is through the student’s being employed in her subject of study - be it physics, law, philosophy, history or media - that she finds how she is implicated in it. Through being employed, in sense that the etymology suggests, she learns what it is to bear responsibility, to be connected with her task, and with others, and to give her attention to her work. But these are not just the kind of outcomes that we would expect of having gone through a higher education; they are the very personal attributes that the acquisition of disciplinary understanding and skills demands. To learn one’s subject well, through being employed in it, is inextricably linked with the development of personal qualities, core and process skills (adaptability; initiative; commitment to learn; focussed attention; critical analysis; prioritising negotiating and problem-solving) that are the aim of many employability discourses in Higher Education. **** References Chura, P., (2010), Thoreau the Land Surveyor, Gainesville: University of Florida Press. Jackson, D., and Chapman, E., (2012), ‘Non-Technical Skills Gaps in Australian Business Graduates Education and Training, 54 (2-3), pp. 95 -113. Schmidt, R., and Gibbs, P., (2009), ‘The Challenges of Work-Based Learning in the Changing Context of the European Higher Education Area’, European Journal of Education, 44 (3) pp. 399 – 410. Standish, P., (2006), ‘Uncommon Schools: Stanley Cavell and the Teaching of Walden’, Studies in Philosophy and Education, 25 (1-2), pp. 145 – 157. Thoreau, H.D., (1854/1999), Walden, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Tran, T.T., (2015), ‘Is Graduate Employability the ‘Whole-of-Higher-Education-Issue?’, Journal of Education and Work, 28 (3), pp. 207 - 227. Yorke, M., and Knight, P., (2006), Learning and Development: Embedding Employability in the Curriculum, York: Higher Education Academy. Zinser, R., (2003),"Developing Career and Employability Skills: A US Case Study", Education and Training, 45 (7), pp. 402 - 410.
    Period17 Aug 201620 Aug 2016
    Event typeConference
    LocationWarsaw, Poland