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What Every Student Needs to Know About Employability

26/01/2016 11:02 GMT | Updated 24/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Are you a student? Do you worry about your job prospects? If your degree makes you employable? If those 9k fees were worth it? Then you're thinking about your employability.

There is not a University that does not have an employability strategy. In the government's HE Green Paper it is suggested that teaching excellence in Higher Education should be measured in large parts by the employment figures of recent graduates. Our own student surveys show that an astounding 87 % of students worry about their employability. It's no wonder they do so, seeing as Universities tell them to worry from the beginning of their very first Fresher's week. While the promises of employability are alluring: autonomy, flexibility, empowerment, they are also largely founded on non-sensical, unfounded and potentially harmful premises. If you often wonder what the job market has in store for you, or whether you are doing enough to make yourself attractive to employers, this is for you. If you are a student this is what you need to know before you worry about employability again.

What does "Employability" Even Mean?

It's hard to imagine today, but employability is a relatively recent concept. It was coined in corporate management circles in the 1980s because companies needed to be more flexible in their relations with employees. Increased global competition and a tough economy required companies to think creatively about new employees. They would no longer offer employment, they would now be offered employability. They no longer had to offer security, they could now offer brief projects. If this sounds like a shifty deal, it was. Employability was "considered a concept that employees, even HR managers, would not buy into". And why would they? Up until the late 1990s, employability was still debated as "an unworkable theory".

The shift from employment to employability was the shift from a shared, societal responsibility for the labour market to an individual, personal responsibility. It is perfectly illustrated by the very first sentence on University of Edinburgh's employability website is unapologetically clear: 'To be employed is to be at risk, to be employable is to be secure'.

Why has everyone accepted the concept of employability - more or less unchallenged? One of the most fundamental changes in Higher Education in recent years has been the conversion of public money into private debt. The 9K fees increase, selling off the student loan book, the conversion of maintenance grants to loans and the scrapping of nursing bursaries are all ways of putting you as a student in further debt. Being indebted limits your options, forces you to make short term decisions and fundamentally alters your judgements.

With the prospect of leaving University with a debt of £44.000 (or after the scrapping of grants, £51.000 for the poorest students) many students are now forced to look at their degree as an investment, above all else. In fact, students are by and large asked to treat their entire selves as little companies. Not only is the student debt a sort of start-up fee, but you will be expected to make yourself "very well rounded with a wide range of interests outside of [your] academic studies" as Warwick University's employability site says. Your friends and social circles are important for your future success because 'who you know, not what you know' has never been more relevant, according to University of Exeter. Students are told to invest in themselves, their social life and their hobbies because they need a return on investment.

And students respond to these pressures. Finance students increased by 95% while Fine Arts fell by 12% from 2007 to 2014. We are increasingly educating a society of business managers, but without philosophers or historians.

If Employability is Nonsense, Why does it Matter?

Because employability is such a weak and contradictory concept, you might think that you don't need to worry too much about it. And in a way, you'd be right. Remember after all, that 76.6% of graduates are in employment 6 months after graduation. Another 11.6 % are doing some form of further study. That makes 88.2% of graduates who are obviously doing something with their degree and it doesn't even include all the people who have gone travelling or similar shenanigans that the statistics can't capture.

But we do need to worry about employability. When employability strategies dictate students' dream degrees, friends and families, hobbies and their personal traits in the name of a career, there is reason to worry. And students do. Three quarters of students are "reasonably" or "very" stressed about their life after Uni. There is an annual increase of 10 % in the number of students seeking counselling at Universities. HEFCE says mental health issues for students are increasing "dramatically". And within just four years the number of student suicides has doubled in women and risen by over a third in men. Obviously, the causes for these statistics are complex. There isn't a singular causation. There isn't one answer that will reverse these trends. But you should ask yourself whether the unreasonable demands of the employability discourse influence your feeling of worth.

And above all, remember that you're not alone. If you are a graduate of 2015 or a student in 2016, by all means worry about your employment. Even worry about your employability. It's hard not to. But if you ever feel like something's wrong, just remember: it's not you, it's them.