Updated: Mar 25
Dr Matt Lumb, CEEHE Associate Director
I recently received an email promoting jobs with a government department and was intrigued by the corporate language in use and so clicked through to check it out. The roles in question will, among other things: facilitate activities where employers can communicate what they need in terms of skills and experience from young people entering their industry. Nowhere was it mentioned that these roles will facilitate activities whereby young people can communicate what they need from employers/industry. For example, I don’t want to assume or to speak for other folks, but I can imagine that stable, safe, meaningful employment might come up in that communication?
This advert also got me thinking about a recent case in NSW where an education-industry partnership was established; with only a vague intention, to build better links between local education providers and local industries. An aspect of this initiative became a relationship between a public high school and a nearby company of national scale which had a maintenance facility nearby; a facet of the partnership promoted as being great for young people in terms of access to work experience, internships, apprenticeships, even jobs. Folks were excited. Site visits ensued. New qualifications were pursued. Learning for a group of students at the school was guided into themes that met the needs of this industrial complex. Media reports were printed. Education-industry partnerships worked! Everyone wins! Young people it seems could be coerced via their school curriculum into accepting pathways to low skill ‘new-collar’ precarious employment!
Then COVID-19 arrived. The industry within which this company operated collapsed overnight, and a decision was made in distant head offices to close the maintenance centre immediately and indefinitely. Hundreds of jobs went. So did the opportunities for work experience, internships, apprenticeships, and employment. I am guessing that the education-industry ‘partnership’ was not a primary boardroom consideration when these decisions were made. We see here some of the emptiness in the call to better alignment between industry needs and formal education systems in our current climate. Aligning, for example, a school, TAFE or university curriculum around a local industry needs does not always take into account the risks that a business operation will make brutal and swift shifts to protect the interests of their stakeholders. Whilst the long terms interests of community members might be a consideration, it is unlikely to be the primary concern.
This case points to a broader set of shifts in the way formal education is understood and positioned. Increasingly, the notion of employability has patterned the purpose of participation in education, including higher education. The instrumental pursuit of a career seems to have become a taken-for-granted reason for university study, particularly as the share of the cost borne by students grows. Employability has become an urgent way in which higher education institutions are expected to provide a particular form of value to the imagined student. Note that we are not talking here about being employed. Just employable. Standing ready? This focus on employability works to hold in place a ‘naturalness’ of the purpose of higher education, one that allows for ‘employable’ ways of being as the benchmark of success. This creates fertile conditions for stigmatising those who are ‘unsuccessful’ in leveraging ‘their’ participation in higher education towards industry interests, with worrying implications for projects of equity.
Students in education are commonly imagined as something like containers, filled to different levels with acceptable forms of ‘aspiration’, ‘resilience’, even ‘education’. This framing of the student embeds certain ways of being a student as the most legitimate ways, limiting or even shutting out completely ways of being that sit outside this frame. This perspective also assumes and embeds rectifying deficit as the primary concern, as it does not readily acknowledge or value what students are bringing with them for example into higher education. Many educators resist this framing yet it is challenging work when the surrounding social structures and logics constantly recoup this narrow, deficit-fuelled framing, guiding expectations and practices.
In an upcoming book chapter, Dr Matt Bunn and I question the contemporary consequences of this notion in Australia. We do so by paying attention to how students are coerced into adopting the conditions described above as a limit on their current and future ways of being. Notions of job or career ‘readiness’ are increasingly the focus of recruitment to universities, arguably in response to industries having cut their investment in training and support of workers and with the responsibility for employment shifting from society to individuals. It is a concern to us that unemployment or the rapidly growing under-employment is seen as the individual’s problem, with no recognition of broader socio-economic conditions. In this way, worklessness is presented as a sort of shortcoming at the level of the individual, despite vast evidence that there is not enough paid work around, and that education systems are complicit in the production of these social inequalities.
Our chapter also explores how there is limited opportunity to debate why this framing of education and the labour market holds such influence. In the absence of this debate there exists the influential output of relatively new organisations seemingly motivated to continually re-embed notions of employability that are primarily of value to sections of industry rather than students.
This post draws on the forthcoming chapter 'Dominant higher education imaginaries' in Reimagining the higher education student: constructing and contesting identities (2021, Brooks, R. & O'Shea, S. (eds.), 2021).
More suggested reading: Moreau, M-P., & Leathwood, C. (2006). Graduates’ employment and the discourse of employability: A critical analysis. Journal of Education and Work 19: 4, 305–324.
We acknowledge and respect the Pambalong Clan of the Awabakal People, traditional custodians of the land on which we work.