When discussing student employability with colleagues in higher education, I’ve come to recognize increasing tension around the topic as more and more students expect universities to prepare them for careers, a view many in academia strongly resist. But I’ve also seen a sincere interest in exploring the issue of employability further.
This summer, I had a unique opportunity to facilitate a learning circle on employability as part of my university’s strategic planning process. I recruited my colleague from the Centre of Learning and Teaching to co-lead the group of staff and faculty. Here are three key takeaways from our work:
1. It’s difficult to define “employability”
We discussed how the concept of employability is largely shaped by personal experience and on a university campus with such diverse stakeholders this can make it difficult to establish a shared definition. Our discussion covered a lot of ground and raised more questions than answers but one point we did agree on is that we first need a better understanding of how the university values employability before making any recommendations.
2. Employability can be taught
Looking across campus to see how employability is being supported, we found it varied from faculty to faculty and a divide exists between curricular and co-curricular programs. In the curricular, for example, employability learning is often implicit and not formally evaluated, so students are missing out on the opportunity to connect what they are learning in the classroom more directly to their future careers. If the university had a shared framework to identify employability learning goals, we would be better positioned to help students recognize the transferability of their skills and knowledge to the labour market.
3. There are voices missing from the conversation
One very important voice that was missing from our group was that of students, although we did examine compelling data that confirms the importance of this topic to them. Unfortunately, there was another absence – none of the handful of teaching faculty who expressed interest in our learning circle attended any of the meetings. To truly address this issue institutionally, we need faculty input, champions and high-level administrative leadership support. We must also seek to include employer perspectives, relying on these important external partners to bring their unique expertise into the conversation.
What is the conversation on employability like on your campus? What insights can you share, or promising practices have you seen? As the conversation on employability continues, there will likely be many tangents and asides, but I believe that as long as we stay engaged and find our local champions, we will be able to move the needle on embedding employability within the university.
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