Student equity and employability in higher education
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Ensuring the employability of graduates is fundamental to the modern mission of higher education institutions. Across the Anglo-American world, universities are focussed on improving the graduate outcomes of their students through diverse strategies that include work-integrated learning programs, study abroad experiences, mentoring, and career development services. These strategies are in turn being driven by broader changes to the policy landscape. First, performance-based funding is rising, with governments moving to fund universities on the basis of their completion rates and graduate outcomes, rather than simply student enrolments. Second, information on employment outcomes is increasingly accessible to prospective students, potentially influencing their choice of institution and discipline. This influence is likely to grow as graduate outcome data becomes embedded within global institutional ranking systems, and as student fees continue to rise. Third, the expansion of the higher education sector has led to a decline in the graduate wage premium, credential inflation, and greater student choice, further underlining the need for universities to demonstrate the employability of their graduates.
Many of these developments are relatively new. The establishment of the ‘College Scorecard’ in the United States (US), through which graduate rates and salaries can be compared by institution, dates from 2015. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in the United Kingdom (UK), under which institutions must demonstrate sound graduate outcomes in order to raise their student fees, will be introduced in 2017. In Australia, the expanded Quality Indicators of Learning and Teaching (QILT) website includes a new employer satisfaction survey and a redesigned graduate outcomes survey, only commenced in 2016. Universities are increasingly being judged and held accountable for what their students do after graduation day.
Given recent policy and funding changes across the US, UK and Australia, we would expect most universities to have increased their strategic focus on employability, defined as ‘a set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that makes graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy’ (Yorke, 2006, p. 8). Previous research, however, highlights that employability is not a neutral concept, and that some student groups benefit more than others from traditional institutional strategies. For example, our own research on ‘study abroad’ experiences revealed the extent to which such experiences are typically dominated by higher socio-economic, metropolitan students (Harvey & Sellar et al., 2016). Similarly, research shows that work-integrated learning (WIL) experiences, access to careers advisers, and other employability activities are likely to be skewed against students of lower socio-economic status, those with a disability, from regional areas, from non-English speaking backgrounds, or from other under-represented groups (Australian Collaborative Education Network, 2015; Doyle, 2011; Greenbank, 2007; Harvey & Reyes, 2015; Martin, 2012; Simpson & Ferguson, 2013; Urbis, 2011). Inequitable access to employability experiences at university may partly explain why some equity group students typically report poorer graduate outcomes than other students.
Given employability is becoming central to a university education, and given the relatively poor graduate outcomes of some groups of under-represented students, how are universities addressing student equity within their employability strategies? To resolve this question we conducted research that included an analysis of employability policy in higher education across the UK, US and Australia; a desktop analysis of Australian university websites; and a survey of both career managers and student union leaders within Australian public universities. Importantly, our approach enabled both managerial and student views to be captured. While focussed on Australia, our comparative contextual analysis enabled us to understand important similarities and differences across Anglo-American contexts.
Our findings revealed increased institutional activity as expected, but also serious limitations in the way that universities are developing and implementing strategies. Universities are clearly developing employability strategies and positions of senior leadership, though many remain formative. Alarmingly though, student equity is not a systematic part of most strategies. Few universities collect data on the participation of equity groups within their employability experiences, and any allocation of specific funds to assist under-represented groups is sporadic and rarely monitored or evaluated. Students themselves appear to be marginalised from the development of institutional strategies, and student unions can produce and access very little data on the participation of equity group students in university clubs, societies, or employment. Extra-curricular activities are rapidly being expanded and rewarded, often with minimal consideration of accessibility and equity implications.
If universities do not begin systematically addressing student equity within employability, several risks will grow. The gaps that currently exist in graduate outcomes may well widen, with low socio-economic and some other under-represented students increasingly disadvantaged as employment depends on experiences to which they lack access, beyond the holding of formal credentials. Other gaps will remain masked by attrition data – those who do not complete degrees do not appear in the graduate destination data, but typically have poorer employment outcomes than graduates. In both cases, rather than redoubling their efforts to improve student equity, some universities may see the new policy drivers as an incentive to restrict access to only the most ‘employable’ and ‘retainable’ of students. The employability agenda raises questions of where university accountability ends, but also of where it begins.
Our report highlights the need for cultural change at institutional level, as well as substantive changes to process and strategy. All areas of the university must be involved in the employability strategy, and all students engaged. One of the most important employability strategies is to focus on retention and completion. Indigenous, low SES, regional, and remote students have particularly low higher education completion rates (Department of Education and Training, 2016). Higher education institutions have responsibility for students whom they enrol but do not complete, and should be measured accordingly. Governments also need to be cognisant of the relationship between retention and employability, and to consider the employment outcomes of non-completers when developing metrics to measure the performance of institutions.
To this end, the integration of employability activities within mainstream curricula is essential to the promotion of both retention and graduate success among all students. Given changing patterns of enrolment, and the external employment and other time demands on students, retention and graduation strategies must shift from the margins of student life to the classroom (Tinto, 2012, p.6). The development and reward of extra-curricular activities need to be interrogated to ensure that the contributions of diverse students can be recognised, and that those low on time and/or money are not disadvantaged by new, often unstated, criteria of success. Similarly, the relevance of extra-curricular and non-traditional activities to employability needs to be communicated more broadly, particularly to groups of students who may eschew participation in order to focus exclusively on their academic achievement. Greater inclusion of the student voice in the development of institutional strategy is required. Finally, the systematic collection, monitoring and evaluation of student equity data is crucial. While current evidence is limited, it is also quite clear: many students are starting from unequal positions and facing unequal outcomes. Employability strategies therefore need to be evidence-based and explicitly designed to redress student inequity.