Full paper Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia 2015

Employability and equity: A comparative international analysis (#68)

Andrew Harvey 1 , Kimberley Reyes 2
  1. La Trobe University, Melbourne, VIC, Australia
  2. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, United States

Abstract Content (up to 300 words recommended)

 Employability has become a central focus of university curricula across both Australian and American contexts. The rise of employability as an essential graduate capability is reflected in the explicit articulation of ‘work-ready’ Bachelor of Arts degrees; a growth in the extent and diversity of clinical and industry placements; and the increasing use of graduate outcome data to inform student aid allocation, institutional reputation, and potentially accreditation (Field, 2013). A greater emphasis on the measurable and utilitarian value of degrees is partly driven by concern over rising fees and student debt (Avery & Turner, 2012; Kamenetz, 2006), and partly by a decline in the graduate wage premium as systems move from mass towards universal participation (Trow 1973).

Integrating employability into university curriculum raises a central question of student equity. How can universities ensure that employment opportunities are aligned with the interests and assets of an increasingly diverse student population? Presently, some student cohorts have significantly worse labour market outcomes than others. Graduates with a disability or from a non-English speaking background, Black, Latina/o, and ethnic minority graduates all typically face worse than average employment outcomes (Graduate Careers Australia, 2014). Further, perceptions of high student debt may steer students away from choosing lower-paying careers that serve the public interest (Rothstein & Rouse, 2011).

Current graduate outcomes thus reflect a university curriculum that works more effectively for students from privileged backgrounds than for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and that may constrain the occupational choices of students from all backgrounds. Embedding employability initiatives within mainstream curriculum requires addressing issues of diversity and the public good, and acknowledging differences in student cultural capital (Yosso, 2005). The authors suggest how the employability capability may be developed to reduce rather than reinforce inequality, drawing on higher education theory and practice from Australia and the United States.  

Addressing the theme/s of the Conference (up to 200 words recommended)

 This paper explicitly addresses the conference theme by focussing on the integration of employability into curricula across two comparable nations. Several sub-themes are also addressed. In particular, the authors consider the education of graduates to be responsive and adaptable professionals, by interrogating the way that employability is both conceptualised and operationalised within university curriculum. Conceptually, an overt focus on private returns to education and graduate wage premiums may disenfranchise some student groups, and may lead to sub-optimal labour market outcomes. For universities, one challenge is to deliver curriculum that is informed by student diversity at the level of design. Operationally, employment opportunities are often utilised by those with the most cultural capital, and ensuring inclusiveness will remain a major institutional challenge.

Finally, the paper addresses the sub-theme of navigating complexity and uncertainty. Universities in both Australia and the United States now enrol unprecedented numbers of students from diverse backgrounds. Institutions will be challenged to design a concept of employability that is relevant to different student cohorts, that promotes lifelong learning and transferable skills, and that directs students to optimal labour market pathways.

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