Is business at risk from a pro-business education policy?
The employability of graduates and school leavers has become one of the dominant discourses of education policy. The skills and capabilities of graduates, and the production of knowledge, are held to be central to the UK’s economic competitiveness.
This has been a key justification for government interventions into the education sector, from James Callaghan’s “great debate”, through to the National Curriculum and countless white papers and reforms. Central to much of this has been a desire to more closely align education provision with the demands of employers, in response to supposed market failures.
Yet is this ostensibly business-centric approach actually a danger to the ability of the business community to satisfy its skills needs?
Boden and Nedeva argue that three things have happened:
- Government policy has replaced labour market relations as the moderating influence in the relationship between education and employers.
- “Employability” has shifted from being a measure of what the market wants to the sum total of personal qualities held by individual graduates.
- Education providers – particularly universities – have come under increasing pressure to turn their provision into regularised, measurable commodities.
Why might this be bad for business? Let’s start with the first argument. Government policy exists to address perceived market failings; it is assumed that the labour market is not sending the right signals to the education sector. What this means is that “good” outcomes are now defined according to a narrow, subjective and specific assessment made by policymakers. Usually this assessment is informed by consultation with business.
But – given that there were an estimated 4.8 million private businesses in the UK at the start of 2012 - this consultation is unlikely to be representative of the vast diversity of businesses and their particular needs. Thus, what happens is that a small number of higher-profile business figures – the James Dysons and Richard Bransons of this world – get to set the agenda. Policy is built around ideas that can be condensed into media-friendly terms: entrepreneurialism, high-tech manufacturing, creative industries and so forth.
As a business owner, if your needs are neither commonplace nor glamorous, your voice is unlikely to be heard as readily at the top of government. In fact, your activities and demands are likely to be held as second-order.
The second argument is that “employability” has now become personal rather than contextual. What this means is that responsibility for success or failure in the labour market is purely the responsibility of the individual. This leads to policy responses that focus on the individual: an academic curriculum, testing, standards, expectations. Everyone is viewed through the same lens; local differences become irrelevant. This also limits the diversity of business needs that can be addressed, since the local context is no longer relevant.
Thirdly, education providers are now under pressure to produce employer-relevant content. Again, this is largely reduced to the transmission of generic work-related skills according to a central ideology, without reference to the diversity of business requirements. Some educational providers, such as elite universities, have the reputational capital to resist such instrumental agendas; their graduates continue to be sought-after because of the quality of their intakes and their teaching and learning. Other institutions, by contrast, become reliant on this instrumental work-skills agenda, which is inevitably derived from a simple, common idea of what employability means.
So can a pro-business education policy put businesses at risk? Yes, if the dynamic local relations between employers and education providers are replaced by a centralised, simplified, sound-bite vision of what success looks like. Businesses and education providers can find themselves heavily stratified; A-list business leaders set the direction from their own perspectives, while the bulk of the economy loses its voice.
However, Boden and Nedeva’s analysis gives clues to an alternative approach. Education and employability policy grounded in local-scal relations between employers and education providers, where government focuses on facilitating thousands of relationships rather than promoting headline ambitions, must offer a better proposition for meeting the needs of a diverse economy. Not everyone will have access to the same opportunities, but then again not every opportunity will exist in an ideological hierarchy. Perhaps we will end up less London-centric than at present.
Localism, in this sense, is the courage to let a thousand ideals of employability develop.
Boden, R and Nedeva, M (2010) ‘Employing discourse: universities and graduate ‘employability”, Journal of Education Policy, 25(1), pp.37-54