A global language for employability: reflections from EAIE 2017

A global language for employability: reflections from EAIE 2017

I recently attended the EAIE 2017 Conference in Seville which saw more than 6000 delegates coming together from 95 different countries to discuss topics related to internationalisation in higher education. At the conference I co-delivered a workshop with Dr. Simon Robson, Associate Pro Vice Chancellor from Northumbria University. The workshop was focused on introducing participants to the Higher Education Academy (HEA) Embedding Employability in Higher Education Framework and how this has been embedded at Northumbria.

With 29 delegates from countries including Australia, the US, Switzerland, France, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Holland and the UK, the workshop presented an exciting opportunity to all learn from each other as part of a global community.

Using language to strengthen bonds

Reflecting on this session afterwards, it struck me how much we all had in common, but how we articulate this in very different ways. Whilst understandable in some respects, this also means that there are inherent difficulties in identifying the root causes to the major challenges we face in understanding and defining employability’s place within international higher education.

Language is very much at the heart of these challenges. How we think about employability influences how we speak about employability. How we speak about employability – the terminology we use – has the potential to either eliminate (or exacerbate) various misconceptions and barriers that we frequently experience when trying to facilitate connections between higher education and employability. Most fundamentally, if we talk about employability less in relation to ‘skills’ and more in terms of ‘learning’, and ‘learning in different contexts’, would we encounter the same resistance? At a conceptual level, I would argue employability is essentially that – learning in different contexts – but this notion gets hidden under the dominant discourse so prevalent in the sector, which is essentially metric driven (ie, simply about employment).

How the terminology we use impacts student employability

The themes of internationalisation and employability certainly intersect, this is clear, but we must recognise the true value of the learning activities we provide students and not just reduce their outcomes to a list of skills. Our Finnish colleague talked about mind set, our Dutch colleagues spoke of character, in France, schools look at values. These examples of diverse language and terminology are exactly what is needed in order to inform and enable us to develop more effective approaches to telling the story of employability. However, this breadth of language is not often apparent everywhere, notably in the UK.

Instead, notions of skills and jobs dominate the discourse, which in turn has an impact on people’s thinking. The casual use of such terminology has become a bad habit with seriously negative implications. A true commitment to employability means that we have a responsibility to nurture students on their journey as lifelong learners; we need to share with them the factors that are important for their future success, no matter their age, their programme of study or what they choose to do after graduating.

Employability: more than just skills

Brexit is clearly of concern to participants from the UK at this conference and how the potential loss of links with Europe will not only have a negative impact on internationalisation but employability, too – a relationship that is often overlooked. Studying abroad will provide the experiences and develop the kinds of qualities of crucial value to an individual’s future employability that even placements may not achieve.

We know employers are not selecting employees based simply on their skills. Instead, employers are looking at competencies and, most importantly, whether job candidates are the right fit for the organisation, the role and the team they will be part of. So, where in our education systems do we value the qualities and characteristics that speak to the factors beyond ‘skills’, such as competencies, ‘fit’, attitudes and behaviours? If we don’t even talk about these wider factors, we have a limited chance to address them effectively in our practice.

We can learn so much from each other, across Europe and beyond, as we really have more in common than we might realise. With so many different stakeholders involved in this area of work, what we really need is to talk more and develop a shared language that unites us all in the complex challenge that is employability.

Doug Cole is Head of Global Employability and Enterprise of the Higher Education Academy in the UK.