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The trouble with employability

06 Nov 2019 | Stuart Norton Stuart Norton, Senior Adviser at Advance HE, takes a look at enterprise for employability in relation to our new Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Education Framework.

I received my Senior Fellowship in January 2016. This was based on a range of employability initiatives I had developed over the previous five years. In April of that year I moved from the (relative) comfort of my academic position, where I had lectured for the past 13 years, to lead the employability portfolio across the Higher Education Academy, and subsequently Advance HE. I share this with you as across this period it has been a fascinating time for developments in both enterprise and employability, of which I’ve been fortunate to participate and engage with. One of which is the Advance HE Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Education Framework.

Firstly, it’s important to pause and recognise that the advent of fees coupled with a policy context that includes a direct focus upon graduate-level outcomes, individuals and society are increasingly expecting a different return on the investment in a university degree. As such, love it or loathe it – employability - has come to the fore of many minds, strategies and TEF narratives!

The trouble with employability is that it’s not a tangible concept. Definitions are often ambiguous, albeit because they are defining a word that, certainly historically, served different meaning to different groups. For example, the individual, the government, education and organisations[1] - resulting in Gazier (1998) terming employability as “a fuzzy notion, often ill-defined and sometimes not defined at all”[2].

For me, the concept of employability as a fuzzy notion is actually one of the more exciting aspects of the often discursive narratives that surround the employability landscape.

But before I digress too much - challenges around definitions, that in turn impact components of employability and often misalign strategies, policies and procedures will impact staff. Staff who already have a wealth of hats to wear - and not necessarily the space or support to create the gold standard, stakeholder engaged definition of ‘employability’ that can help address the ‘gaps’ (real or perceived) at a programmatic level.  

If anything, some of these challenges have increased the number of barriers for employability proponents as the term becomes more ingrained in the language of higher education institutions and commentators, yet less so in practice. At the same time, this has created an opportunity for enterprise and entrepreneurship education to progress and develop, primarily with recognition of some of the pitfalls that employability has succumbed to.  I think it’s fair to say that within the sphere of enterprise and entrepreneurship education there is an air of relief that a number of groups jointly worked and agreed the QAA definitions for both Enterprise and Entrepreneurship.

Similarly, in partnership with EEUK, IOEE, ISBE, SFEDI and the QAA our Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Education Framework has been developed with and for the sector over the last 18 months. 

The Framework is designed to align with the QAA guidance, providing an approach to develop learners with the appropriate enterprising mindset and skills that can help them traverse the world of employment and varying entrepreneurship activities. The Framework also identifies the need to develop ideas that can make a difference in response to identified needs and change - to enable learners to act upon their knowledge and to make decisions.

Enterprise education, through the Framework as a dial to capture the core tenets, is about facilitating learners in moving from ideas to action and, in so doing, supports and aligns with a broader approach to develop (employability amongst) learners.

I’m not suggesting that we step back from the thorny issue of employability, indeed Advance HE will be publishing a case study compendium of employability from across the sector later this year, our forthcoming employability symposia is scheduled for April 2020 and we have recently launched an Employability & Enterprise Network on Advance HE Connect, our online network exclusively for higher education, which we’d be delighted for you to join and participate in. Employability is clearly a core thematic area of our work. But, while (often circular) debate will continue regarding the language of skills, attitude and behaviours (etc.), both of and for employability, the enterprise agenda has managed to sidestep this issue, focussing on the foundations for developing the student throughout their career and looking to create impact and sustainable change at a programme, school/faculty/college and institutional level. Ultimately this is to enhance student success, and dare I say, employability?   

For me, over the last five years, there has become more of a blurring rather than distinction between the two. The components of enterprise are fundamental to the components of employability and vice-a-versa. Where there is a differential is with the agreed definitions. This immediately creates something tangible and the work previously undertaken by the QAA has had fantastic reach and influence (for example, see EntreComp the European Entrepreneurship Competence Framework). 

The Advance HE Framework for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Education uses the QAA definitions and has purposefully worked with a range of partners to develop a collaborative and meaningful approach that can be adopted to shape changes to pedagogies, assessment, teaching and learning practices and institutional cultures, processes and practices.

Look out for more on enterprise coming soon, including the opportunity to take part in a collaborative project and a series of blogs and videos from Advance HE and partners.


Stuart Norton is a Senior Adviser at Advance HE in Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery

[1] See Michel Cournoyer in Guilbert, L. et al (2016). Employability: Review and research prospects. International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance, 16(1), 69-89 for a more detailed analysis.

[2] Gazier (1998 p298) cited in McQuaid and Lindsay (2005 p 197) The concept of Employability Urban Studies, Vol. 42, No. 2, 197–219.

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