Higher education, employability and the worldwide economic crisis.

Author:Moir, James

    Influential writers such as Barnett, (2007, 2009) suggest that the 'will to learn' is a key aspect of the student experience that needs to be encouraged and nurtured. This is framed within the context of the knowledge economy and the need to develop the skills required for a world of work that requires adaptability and flexibility. According to this view it is not the subject of study or the acquisition of skills that educators need to focus on but rather personal aspects such as authenticity, dispositions and inspiration. Of course, this is not a new idea but what perhaps Barnett has drawn attention to more than others is how this process is related to an increasingly uncertain age and difficult economic times. As he puts it:

    The fundamental educational problem of a changing world is neither one of knowledge nor of skills but is one of being. To put it more formally, the educational challenge of a world of uncertainty is ontological in nature.

    (Barnett, 2006, p.51)

    In this regard his work chimes to some extent with the Zeitgeist of the times (Beck, 1992; Sennett, 1998; Elliot & Lemert, 2006); an age of insecurity and risk, of individualism set in relation to appeals to the market-like structures and globalisation where these are valued in and of themselves as an ethic for guiding action, of constant self-reinvention capable of producing greater freedom but also anxiety. This has been exacerbated by the current worldwide economic downturn and the requirement for higher education to be seen to 'deliver' in terms of employability in an increasingly insecure economic and organisational environment. The requirement for graduates to be adaptable and entrepreneurial has therefore never been greater when set within a world of instability and uncertainty.

    However, whilst this age may well be one of uncertainty, Barnett call upon educators in higher education to consider how they can develop curricula and pedagogies that provide students with the qualities to persist, adapt and thrive in this environment. Much of his focus is therefore directed towards how such qualities or attributes can be developed and in doing so this connects with related concepts such as graduate attributes (Barrie, 2004. 2006; 2007).


    The 2009 synthesis report from the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNI) entitled Higher Education at a time of Transformation: New Dynamics for Social Responsibility draws attention in its introduction to the many challenges confronting the higher education sector that stem from those of wider society: beyond the 'ivory tower' or 'market-oriented university' towards one that innovatively adds value to the process of social transformation. The report argues that this creation and distribution of socially relevant knowledge is something that needs to be core to the activities of universities, thereby strengthening their social responsibility (p 7). The report goes on to outline the emerging tensions that bear upon this question and coalesce around a set of interlinked oppositional themes: reactive versus proactive institutions with respect to knowledge paradigms; the knowledge economy versus the knowledge society; universities for the public good or private good; and knowledge relevance versus competitively-driven knowledge. However, the stress on social transformation is also one that equates to personal transformation in terms of the development of graduate attributes. In effect, higher education is viewed as a means towards creating a particular kind of identity linked to social transformation.

    As the GUNI suggests, this calls for a rethink regarding the purpose of higher education; a purpose that is one of transformation rather than transmission:

    The central educative purpose of HEIs ought to be the explicit facilitation of progressive, reflexive, critical, transformative learning that leads to much improved understanding of the need for, and expression of, responsible paradigms for living and for 'being' and 'becoming', both as individuals alone and collectively as communities.' (GUNI, 2009, p 11)

    This move away from the almost exclusive focus on higher education as involving the transmission of knowledge to a growing focus of the learner and the transformational nature of the experience has been a feature of the Scottish system since 2003. This reform know as the 'Enhancement Themes' approach has led to a range of policy and institutional initiatives that have attempted to modernise the higher education system in light of the increased participation and widening of access. As the name of this approach suggests, the focus is on enhancement as a means of changing and improving the higher education experience. This is based on the view that the student is at the centre of the process and that the focus needs to be on learning experience rather than the traditional focus on pedagogy per se. This has lead to series of projects which have been overseen by the Quality Assurance Agency for higher education in Scotland. These include a consideration of the nature and purpose of the First Year; developing employability, changes to assessment practices, responding to students needs, and research-teaching linkages. Taken together these various themes have gone a considerable way to shaping institutional practices through for example teaching and learning strategies that have impacted upon the learning experience for students.

    Scottish higher education institutions have recently engaged in a...

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