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Purpose The purpose of this paper is to draw on the outcomes of an Higher Education Academy funded project, Literacies for Employability (L4E) to contribute to discussion of the interface between university learning and workplace settings and the focus on employability that dominates the English context. The paper will be of interest to colleagues from any discipline who have an interest in critical (re)readings of employability and practical ways of engaging student in ethnographic approaches to understanding workplace practices, particularly those with an interest in professional, work-based, or placement learning. Design/methodology/approach L4E is grounded in social theories of communication from Sociology and Education that understands literacy as a complex social activity embedded in domains of practice. These ideas recognise workplaces as domains that are highly distinctive and diverse contexts for literacy (rather than generic or standard) and that to be successful in particular workplace settings students must be attuned to, and adaptive and fluent in, the nuanced literacy practices of that workplace. However, evidence suggests (Lea and Stierer, 2000) that HE students (and teachers) rarely experience overt teaching about literacy in general or workplace literacies in particular. Findings This project developed a framework to scaffold and support this process across the disciplines so that students can develop the attitudes and behaviours they will need to be successful in the workplace. Originality/value The approach chimes with recommendations from Pegg et al. (2012) that employability is most effectively developed through a focus on more expansive, reflexive approaches to learning and through “raising confidence […] self-esteem and aspirations” (Pegg et al., 2012, p. 9).
A final version of this articles appears in the journal of Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning. The
article DOI (10.1108/HESWBL-09-2017-0055)
Re-thinking employability with a literacies lens: from skills to practices, from tool-kits
to ethnography
Alex Kendall & Amanda French
Research Funding: This work was supported by a grant from the HEA reference:
This paper draws on the outcomes of an Higher Education Academy funded project,
Literacies for Employability (L4E) to contribute to discussion of the interface between
university learning and workplace settings and the focus on employability that dominates the
English context. The paper will be of interest to colleagues from any discipline who have an
interest in critical (re)readings of employability and practical ways of engaging student in
ethnographic approaches to understanding workplace practices, particularly those with an
interest in professional, work-based, or placement learning.
L4E is grounded in social theories of communication from Sociology and Education that
understands literacy as a complex social activity embedded in domains of practice. These
ideas recognise workplaces as domains that are highly distinctive and diverse contexts for
literacy (rather than generic or standard) and that to be successful in particular workplace
settings students must be attuned to, and adaptive and fluent in, the nuanced literacy practices
of that workplace. However evidence suggests (Lea and Stierer, 2000) that HE students (and
teachers) rarely experience overt teaching about literacy in general or workplace literacies in
particular. This project developed a framework to scaffold and support this process across the
disciplines so that students can develop the attitudes and behaviours they will need to be
successful in the workplace. The approach chimes with recommendations from Pegg et al
(2012) that employability is most effectively developed through a focus on more expansive,
reflexive approaches to learning and through “raising confidence…self-esteem and
aspirations’ (2012:9).
(Word Count 245)
Key Words: Employability, Critical Employability, Literacies, New Literacy Studies,
Higher Education, Vocational learning
Over the last three decades participation in higher education (HE) in the United Kingdom
(UK) has increased substantially from 12% in 1979 to 48% in 2015 (DfE, 2016). Such large
scale ‘massification’ (Scott, 2000) in combination with the impact of globalisation and more
recently recession, has put UK universities under increasing pressure from policymakers to
engage more actively and explicitly with an ‘employability’ agenda, that is to say to align the
outcomes of higher education more closely to the perceived needs of employers and the
economy. Universities are increasingly responding with ‘skills-based’, employer-led curricula
that play out a discourse of ‘graduate-ness’ as ‘enhanced work-readiness’ (Boden and
Nedeva, 2010:49-50). In this paper we draw on the outcomes of a UK Higher Education
Academy (HEA) Teaching Development Grant (TDG) funded project, Literacies for
Employability (L4E), to argue that in practice such an approach often has the paradoxical
effect of restricting, rather than expanding, students’ concept-making about the world of
work. An over emphasis, we argue, on narrow, functional models of being and doing in work
diminish potential for creative agency and the re-imagining of workplace relations.
The L4E project sought to work with alternative perspectives on employability, ‘plugging in’
ideas from the New Literacy Studies to offer new starting points for employability curricula.
Evidence suggests (Lea and Stierer, 2000) that HE students (and teachers) rarely experience
overt teaching about literacy in general or workplace literacies in particular and the project
aimed to develop a framework to scaffold and support these processes. The L4E project,
which is non-discipline specific, builds on Pardoe and Ivanic’s (2007) work on Literacies for
Learning in FE. The framework tool, developed through the project, affords, we suggest, an
alternative, disruptive lens through which students might understand workplaces as
distinctive, complex social domains mediated by a wide variety of literacy events and
practices that are, in turn, patterned and framed by institutions and power relationships, which
are historically situated and constantly evolving (Barton and Hamilton, 1998:7). This
approach, we contend, re-imagines employability as a process of on-going, restless enquiry
rather than one of acquisition of a specified skills set. In this way, we argue, our approach
facilitates, opportunities to open up, explore, investigate, interpret and analyse workplace
settings, and ones own entanglement with them. After Gee’s (2000) Bill of Rights for literacy
learners our work with student co-researchers suggests that such an approach enables
development of meta-understandings of the workplace and recognition of the ways of being
and doing (identities, subjectivities, allegiances, affiliations, attitudes, behaviours, structural
relations) that pattern and frame workplace interactions. Consequently student researchers
felt better able to understand their own positionality within those relations and make
decisions, based on thoughtful, self-conscious assessments of risk, about their own
participation as neophyte professionals, volunteers and workers. Such an approach directly
addresses OECD (2015) concerns that higher education programmes teach “yesterday’s skills
to tomorrow’s graduates” so that “even highly qualified candidates have the wrong skills for
the jobs available” and chimes with the recommendations of Pegg et al (2012) that
employability is most effectively developed through a focus on more expansive, reflexive
approaches to learning and through “raising confidence…self-esteem and aspirations”
Higher education and neoliberalism: ‘employability’ and conditions of possibility
As outlined above, we argue that the reconceptualisation of the higher education curriculum
as a space for building workplace skills, identities and subjectivities is a manifestation of a
broader political turn informed by the tenets of neo-liberalism: the self-interested individual;
free market economics; commitment to laissez faire regulation of markets; and commitment
to free trade (Olssen and Peters, 2005). Within this paradigm, argue Olssen and Peters (2005)
the role of the state is to create “the conditions, laws and institutions” (2005:214), the
conditions of possibility, for ‘the market’ to persist in the terms outlined above. As such
higher education (and indeed education more generally), as a state funded technology of
marketisation, becomes a locale for the creation of “enterprising and competitive
entrepreneur[s]” (Olssen and Peters, 2005: 315). In this next section we notice the trace of
neoliberal discourse played out through higher education UK policy around employability
over the last four decades.
The Robbins Report in 1963 was keen to stress that HE should not just be viewed as a tool to
serve economic needs. Instead, Robbins argued, a balanced perspective needed to recognise
that HE also helped create the cultured and civilised society in which the economy operates.
In the 1970s this balanced approach remained prevalent, although arguments were building
for improved relations between education and businesses. James Callaghan noted his concern
in his speech at Ruskin College that many good students preferred the academic life or the
civil service to joining the business world. He also highlighted complaints from employers
that new recruits often did not have the basic skills needed to do the job required (Callaghan,
1976). As the 1980s proceeded, linking education with business began to take greater
prominence to the extent that Tasker and Packham (1994) declared the values of business
were promoted alongside educational ones. The 1987 Paper1 (DES), Higher education:
meeting the challenge, positioned economic requirements as the ‘urgent need’ (1987:1) HE
had to address. Furthermore, this paper placed these requirements as essential to the planning
framework of HE so that the economy would be served more effectively arguing for example
for HE provision to be shifted towards subjects for which ‘future employer demand is
strongest’ (1987:10). By 1991 a new White Paper Higher education: a new framework
(DES), made no mention at all of a cultural or social function for HE. The emphasis lay
instead on a need to be responsive to business and commerce and to justify the general
economic and commercial relevance of HE provision. Jones and Thomas (2005: 618)
describe this new emphasis as a utilitarian turn, in which the primary focus is on the
relationship between HE and the economy and ensuring the former becomes ‘increasingly
receptive to developments in the latter’. The new purpose of HE, Jones and Thomas argue, is
reduced simply to meeting economic needs, a role that neglects any potential for social,
cultural or civic benefit and commodifies the processes and practices of knowledge
This utilitarian focus gathered momentum from the 1990s into the millennium with the HE
sector increasingly under pressure to increase ‘its contribution to the economy and its
responsiveness to the needs of business’ (DfEE, 1998: 3; DfES 2003). In 2008 Thorpe
extended Tasker and Packham’s (1994) view that business values are promoted as much as
educational ones to argue that any value frameworks within HE that do not relate to economic
values have been delegitimised. Specifically, Thorpe argues, the role of HE is re-calibrated at
this time with vocational purposefulness gaining traction over notions of ‘intrinsic good’. In
2010 the Browne Report builds on this position asserting that the HE system continues to be
insufficiently responsive to the skills required by the economy. A key focus of Browne’s
recommendations then related to ensuring a ‘closer fit between what is taught in higher
education and the skills needed in the economy’ (201:23). A subsequent white paper Higher
education: students at the heart of the system (BIS, 2011) confirmed employment outcomes
as essential criteria for judging the quality of a course and attracting prospective students.
The paper required each institution to produce a Key Information Set (KIS) for each course
1 White papers are policy documents produced by the UK Government that set out their
proposals for future legislation.
for potential applicants to view. Employment and earning outcomes feature predominantly in
this KIS. This approach is in line with the paper’s overall aim to attract more people into HE
to ‘greater the national economic gain’ (p.8). Accordingly, the paper’s proposals stressed the
government’s intentions to make universities ’become even more responsive to the changing
demands of students and employers for high level skills and employability’ (BIS, 2011: 3).
High value is attributed to the vocational application of higher education in this paper, the
opening reference to ‘Higher education [as]…a good thing” or that “Students may study a
subject because they love it regardless of what it means for their earnings” (2011:38), simply
serving as an opener to a section on ‘Employer engagement’ and ‘rewarding
careers’(2011:38). Certainly the UK government has for some time been keen to assert a
perceived correlation between an individual’s literacy level and the kinds of income they
might expect to command (Pember, 2001).
A utilitarian focus for teaching employability in higher education is apparent in both the
Browne Report (2010) and the 2011 White Paper (BIS), which emphasised employment skills
as the main aim that courses should achieve. The utilitarianism of HE is further promoted in
the 2011 White Paper (BIS) through employers being encouraged to kite mark and endorse
degrees. As further evidence of the growing importance attached to graduate employability,
the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) began to develop metrics in
2001 (HEFCE 2001, 2002, 2003) to understand for university performance which include
indicators of graduate labour market outcomes culminating in the use of such data to ‘grade’
universities through the Teaching Excellence Framework Exercise (French and O’Leary,
As the historical outline above illustrates university education has been increasingly linked
with, and some have argued, reduced to, a utility that coheres around the idea that
participation in higher education will deliver better employment opportunities and higher
wages for individual graduates (Ball, 2008). Indeed the Higher Education Funding Council
for England (HEFCE) measures graduate labour market outcomes as one of its performance
indicators (HEFCE, passim) and tuition fees have been justified on the grounds due to the
‘graduate premium’, graduates can expect to earn a lot more than non–graduates, although
the differentials are decreasing year on year (ONS, 2011). Not surprisingly, universities have
for some time incorporated employability features into their ‘graduate characteristics’ such as
the ability to ‘self-manage careers’ and a commitment to ‘continue learning throughout their
working lives’ (Harvey and Morey, 2003).
Conceptualising Employability – Big D discourses
In this section we explore what (Gee, 2011) refers to as ‘big D’ Discourses about
employability, “that is to say the combination of language, actions, interactions, ways of
thinking, believing and valuing and using various symbols, tools and objects to enact a
particular sort of socially recognizable identity” (2011:201) in this case two competing
accounts of ‘employability’. Later on in the article we will set these discourses alongside the
world-figuring, or ‘little d’ discourses, (Gee 2011) undertaken at the individual level.
The first account traces neo-liberal discourse outlined above as played out at the institutional
locus, the second draws on thinking from literacy studies to imagine a new pedagogical
paradigm for students exploration of employability.
‘Employability’ in the neo-liberal turn
In terms of delivering an institutional response to this employer/employment-led agenda
universities have often tried to raise the visibility of employability as an extra facet of
undergraduate entitlement. Most commonly this has involved overtly embedding skills
based, employment-related activities into existing courses, creating new stand-alone
employment focused courses (sometimes accredited) or strands to degree programmes and
increasing opportunities for work experience. This produces a clear employer-led agenda that
has shaped policy and pedagogic discourses around graduate employability. In combination
these approaches have a tendency to treat graduateness as a form of enhanced ‘work-
readiness’ (Boden and Nedeva, 2010: 49-50) engendering an ‘entrepreneurial habitus’ that
socialises students to become compliant workers (Tarrent, 2001).
In common with the widening participation agenda in higher education, enhanced
employability skills for graduates have been consistently presented as a commodified
resource that successive governments have been prepared to invest in so that they can
compete and trade more effectively in global economic and employment markets (Ball, 2008;
Sanguinnetti 2000 and Gee 2000). In this way employability initiatives and strategies concur
with a very individuated model of learning in higher education. Gee (2000: 46) discusses
how in what he calls the New Capitalism, skills can be neatly compartmentalised and are
universally applicable. Individuals in this model are constituted in the labour market as skills
‘repositories’ ready to advertise and display what they have to offer any potential employer.
As such individual agency is subjugated to ensembles of “skills stored in a person, assembled
for a specific project, to be reassembled for other projects, and shared…” (2000: 46)
In a Foucauldian sense, we argue conversely that the skills-focused discourses that inform
many employability programmes can end up limiting individuals’ engagement with the world
of work as their emphasis is often on a very narrow and functional model of employability
skills which ‘… structure the possible field of action’ (Foucault, 1982:221, in Dreyfus et al,
1983) in which those skills can be deployed. In comparison, the ‘real life’ arena for
employability literacies is fluid, complicated and always already in flux. It is therefore
difficult to envisage how a single universal skill set could ever cover all the different aspects
of employment that might be required by graduates. For this reason we maintain that a
predominately skills focused discourse has served to limit students, lecturers and employers’
conceptions of employability in particular kinds of ways.
Fig. 1 Contrasting employability paradigms
Skills- focussed conceptualisation of
employability skills
L4E alternative
Critical re-conceptualisation
employability literacies
Autonomous Ideological
Objective Subjective
Technicist skills set
-Reading as transmission,
-Writing as transmission, encoding
Social practice
-Reading as meaning making – self
and world
-Writing as making – self and
Universal Situated
Functional Creative
Performative Developmental
Fixed Fluid
A-historical Historically situated
Naturalistic, Humanist subject Ontological subject
Neoliberal driver Social justice impulse
Critical incidents Hot Spots
Fig. 2 Paradigm driven ways of ‘doing’ and ‘knowing’
Dominant L4E
Linear Rhizomic
Quality led Experiential
Product focussed Process based
Norm referenced Relative
Individual Social
Generic Context-bound
Individual Collaborative
External Embedded
Deficit/repair model Holistic/open-ended
Acquisitional Embedded
Reflective Reflexive
As figure 1 illustrates a dominant skills focussed model (or paradigm) characterises
employability as a tangible, known and knowable, fixed set of skills that can be
systematically and mechanically acquired. Consequently, traditional conceptions of
employability understand employment ‘competencies’ to belong to de-contextualised ‘tool-
kits’ of, ‘key’, ‘core’, ‘transferable’ and/or ‘generic’ skills. Such “key competencies” argues
Kascak et al (2011: 84) “have become obligatory resources in planning education at all levels
(in…state and school curricula)” serving “to produce high-quality ‘human capital’ for the
labour market.”
Specifically, employability skills around communication are underpinned by an autonomous
(Street, 1999) model of literacy skills. Within such a model literary social practices such as
reading, writing, speaking and listening skills can be unproblematically transferred to the
workplace, irrespective of the employment settings graduates might find themselves in.
Such a view reflects an essentially neoliberal concept of human capital where the onus falls
on the student, who has a responsibility to become employable and/or attractive to employers,
an “entrepreneur of one’s own development” (Gerlach, 2000:189, cited in Kascak et al,
2011:74), in order to compete successfully for the opportunity to work. In a time of recession
and high unemployment degrees are increasingly ‘sold’ on the basis that they can enhance
participant’s employability, affording competitive edge in the job market, “clearly
indicat[ing] the interconnections between” concepts of “the active, self-organized and self-
educated individual and economic efficiency” (Kascek et al 2011:74). This reflects a broader
shift in education, as discussed above, towards a more commodified, ‘new knowledge
economy’ (Ball, 2008) that positions graduate-ness as enhanced human and social capital,
primarily paid for, or subsidised by the state and as such, accountable to the state.
However, left unquestioned this reliance on a ‘tool-box’ approach to employability where
students are encouraged to acquire a repertoire of such skills, has a tendency to elide social
and political differences between individuals, and means that issues of cultural capital and
unequal power relations between individuals and groups are often not taken into account, by
students or those working with them in pursuit of an employability agenda.
Re-thinking employability: towards a social practice model
Higher education academic writing and writing development practices take place within
institutions which may be highly pedagogised spaces in disciplinary terms but which often
lack a sense of clarity and criticality about what actually constitutes and supports learning
generally and academic literacies specifically (Lea and Street, 1998; Ganobscik- Williams,
2006). Biggs (2003) argues that all forms of higher education learning may, for this reason,
benefit from a more explicitly ‘metacognitive’ pedagogic approaches that foreground and
problematise the processes involved in learning and teaching. Barnett (2000) argues that
universities inhabit a ‘super complex’ world in which they are not sole, authoritative
producers and reproducers of information or knowledge in particular, fixed forms. Indeed, he
argues that in the modern world the nature and status of any knowledge-claims are
increasingly debatable and contestable as are the forms deployed to express them. Learning in
higher education should, therefore, according to Barnett (2000), be progressively experienced
via the negotiation of a number of contested critical metanarratives or frameworks through
which information can be expressed and experienced.
The L4E project that we draw on to construct this second narrative takes as its alternative
starting point the idea that employability literacies can neither be summed up as a definable
skills set nor usefully taught as part of a functional work-based curriculum (Pegg, 2010). In
this section we aim to challenge established approaches to student employability by plugging-
in to theories and concepts from New Literacy Studies (NLS) theorists, (Barton and
Hamilton, 1998; Gee, 1990, 2000, Cope et al, 2002, Street, 1999, 2001, Lankshear and
Knobel, 2006) to help us think through student learning about employment, the ‘world of
work’ and participation in the workplace. NLS researchers have sought to reconceptualise
literacy as a complex social activity embedded in domains of practice. In this approach
employability practices, like other social practices, are part “…of a [workplace] domain…
framed by its culture. Their meaning and purpose are socially constructed through
negotiations among present and past members…[Such] activities thus cohere in a way that is,
in theory, if not always in practice, accessible to members who move within the social
framework. These coherent, meaningful, and purposeful activities are…most simply defined
as the ordinary practices of the culture” (Seely Brown, Collins & Duguid 1989:1).
As figure 1 demonstrates, the shifted emphasis informing the L4E critical employability
literacies framework reflects Barnett’s (2000) contention that contestable and fluid pedagogic
frameworks are a vital component of ‘super complexity’ in higher education as they seek to
create new spaces for students (and lecturers) to question traditional practices, in this case in
relation to orthodoxies of employability. Employability literacies, such as interviewing,
writing application forms and conducting presentations can be usefully viewed as socially
situated activities which need to take into account the wider social contexts in which they
take place. Situated theories of learning/cognition provide “…conceptual and methodological
resources for investigating the fundamental processes of cognition as a social and situated
activity” (Kirshner & Whitson, 1997:3). In particular, they trouble traditional concepts of
knowledge transfer and knowledge acquisition “by shifting the focus away from the
individual as the unit of analysis toward the sociocultural setting in which activities are
embedded (Kirshner and Whitson. 1997:5)” and provide new ways of being and doing
employability as illustrated in figure 2.
This situated learning/cognition model challenges the traditional, passive ‘knowledge
transfer’ model often implicit in university teaching (as discussed above) where there is a
reliance on individuated, human capital models of knowledge acquisition which imply little
connection between subject-specific learning, context and discourse, see figure 2. One can
argue that any situated and social activity, such as being interviewed or writing a letter of
application can only become meaningful in an external, social domain rather than through
any individuated, internal processes - as Brown, Collins and Duguid contend when
knowledge is co-produced through activity “learning and cognition…are fundamentally
situated” (1989: 1).
Mapping a critical employability literacies landscape
Overview of the L4E Project
The L4E project ran over an eighteenth month period from June 2012 to December 2013 and,
as outlined above, drew on contemporary ideas from literacy studies to reconceptualise
employability as a process of induction into the social practices of the workplace. Focusing
on literacies as a mechanism for enabling successful immersion in workplace cultures the
project aimed to develop, pilot and embed a cross-curricular ‘literacies- for-employability’
framework that could be flexed across disciplines and workplace contexts. The project sought
to achieve specific benefits for tutors and students.
In the case of tutors, to enable them to embed ‘overt instruction’ (after Gee to mean self-
conscious ‘teaching about’) of workplace literacies concepts into the design and content of
work-based or placement curricula and to engage them in co-investigation and co-
construction, with students, of meta-narratives of workplace literacies. In the case of students
the project focused on re-conceptualisation of employability as a dynamic, contested concept,
which one might continue to engage critically with over a career course. This included
ethnographic exploration, analysis and critique of the literacy practices of the workplace,
consideration of own positionality within existing work-based practices and opportunities to
plan participation self-consciously and explore notions of risk.
The project was undertaken in four phases: development of the L4E framework; piloting of
the framework; embedding in to the curriculum at our own university; and recontextualisation
in a wider partnership of university settings. In the development phase a literature review was
undertaken to provide the theoretical framing for the project and produce the draft
framework. The framework, see figure 2, was adapted from Pardoe and Ivanic’s (2007) work
on Literacies for Learning in Further Education (LfLinFE). Pardoe and Ivanic’s work was
specifically aimed at supporting teachers to make reading and writing in the FE curriculum
more varied, more connected to students literacy practices in life and more ‘useful’ and
‘relevant; to the vocational needs of students as they navigated workplace contexts. Drawing
on social practice models they identified nine aspects of literacy that teachers might use to
analyse reading and writing within a course, unit or activity to support small changes in
practice that contribute to more useful learning for students. Whilst Pardoe and Ivanic’s work
makes a ground-breaking contribution to re-thinking the literacy practices of curriculum
design in vocational education, it is the teacher in the LfLinFE model, rather than the student
or, the student and teacher in collaboration, who does the ‘critical thinking’ about literacies.
The aim of LfLinFE is to enable teachers to provide curriculum opportunities that are more
‘authentic’, useful and relevant, for vocational students so that they are better equipped to
participate in vocational literacies and more attuned to the ‘vocational habitus’ of the world of
work. As such workplace relations are reproduced and insinuated in the classroom rather than
opened up as a possible object of study. For us there is a paradox here. Whilst the teacher is
encouraged to inhabit the right hand critical spaces of figure 1, the student may constrained to
a more restricted, left hand space experience, their role diminished to one of recognition and
acquisition of required, prescribed identities and actions presented neutrally as ‘realities’ of
the workplace, put simply the ‘way things are done – the neo-liberal competence model,
described by Kascak (2011), in action.
We were motivated to put the LfLinFE framework to work in a quite different way, as a lens
through which students, teachers, and students and teachers as collaborators, might re-view
and interrogate workplace literacies as starting points for thinking through employability. We
wanted this lens to be both literal and conceptual, an auto-ethnographic experience of
‘turning one’s critical gaze towards’ the workplace within which one is immersed. The
framework, described below, was therefore developed as an ‘app’ for use with mobile devices
that could be used in situ to ‘capture’ literacy moments, texts, events, practices, interactions
and interventions, anything considered to be significant as it occurred in the moment. The app
then enables critical interrogation of the chosen tableau through dialogic question prompts
that relate back to the nine aspects of a literacy practice, see figure 2. The student is then able
to share their thinking through analysis with their teacher and peers via a shared web-space
mediated by the teacher. The web-space allows individual, group and collective collation and
curation of the empirical material, photographs, descriptions, reflections and commentaries,
amassed by the group, yielding a substantial ethnographic ‘data’ archive about a particular
type or grouping of workplace settings. This resource can then be used, as we did in the
embedding stage of the project, as content for meta-learning about workplaces in a critical
employability curriculum.
Picture Purpose of work-
In your example what
is the purpose of the
communication? What
is the nature of your
example and what is it
trying to achieve? Is it
individual? Is it
institutional? Is it
Audience (s)for work-
based information
In your example, who is
saying what & to whom?
Service user - Employee
Customer – Employee
Manager – Employee
What are the dynamics
of the relationship in
your example? How is
power exercised through
forms of communication
in your workplace
Do you wear a
uniform as part of
your role in your
example? How are
corporate logos or
branding used in your
example? Typeface
Prompt Use of colour
What does your
example tell you
about business custom
and practice in your
Risks, Flexibility and
In terms of your
example: Why here?
Why now? Why like
this? To what extent
do communications in
this example have to
be done like this? Is
this the only way this
could have been done?
Why – who decides?
What are the
opportunities for
doing this differently?
What is the risk
involved for doing it
Workplace Roles
Who has originated your
example and in what role
does this happen? What
values and priorities do
they bring to your
example? Do your values
and priorities comply or
contrast with those
Means and modes of
What type of
communication is
your example
illustrating? Is the
communication multi-
modal: Paper?
What does your
example tell you about
professional practices
in you workplace?
What aspect of
professional practice
Work-based social
What does your example
suggest to you about
social relationships in
your workplace?
Collaboration? Power
Figure 3. Literacies for Employability (L4E) framework.
In the piloting phase of L4E nine funded student researchers undertaking either work
placements integral to their programmes or study, or paid work alongside their study made
use of the framework to collect empirical material – pictures, reflections and responses to the
prompts. The student researchers were recruited by open advert via the Universities
employment agency ‘Student Opportunity.’ Applicants were selected based on their
enthusiasm for the project, their access to a workplace or placement during the material
collection phase and their availability in terms of time commitments. As such researchers
were drawn from disciplines across the University’s Schools and Departments including,
Post-compulsory Education, Law, Sociology and Early Childhood Studies and were at
different stages of their degree study. This mix of disciplines provided a variety of contexts
through which to explore the play of literacies in workplace settings and opportunities to
compare and contrast practices and encounters.
Researchers were given little guidance on ‘what’ to collect, invited alternatively to capture
‘hot spots’ in their experience of work-place literacy, that is to say moments of recognition,
“movement, singularity, emergence” (Maclure, 2013: 171), “gut feelings [that] point to the
existence of embodied connections with other people, things and thoughts.” (ibid: 172).
This material was then shared and discussed in a whole research group conversation (student
researchers and university researchers) at which the framework was revised and refined.
Student researchers were undertaking programmes of study in Law, Further Education
teacher training, Sociology and Early Childhood Studies and collected and responded to
empirical material generated in a range of contexts including the Citizens Advice Bureau2, a
nursery school, a further education college, a rehabilitation centre for people recovering from
drug and alcohol addiction, clothing retail outlets and a nightclub/bar. It is our conversations
at this stage of the project that we discuss in the next section of the paper to explore the
effects of working with the L4E framework.
Figured worlds – towards a critical employability curriculum
2 The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB is a national UK charity that provides independent,
confidential and impartial advice to everyone on their rights and responsibilities. The CAB
aims to provide the advice people need for the problems they face, for example legal and
financial advice, and improve the policies and practices that affect people's lives.
In this section we explore the impact of the L4E framework on student researchers’ concept-
making, or what Gee (2011) might call ‘little d’ world-figuring about their experiences of the
world of work. In this discussion we focus particularly on the methodological, the auto-
ethnographic processes of self-conscious ‘noticing differently’ that L4E facilitates, and use of
the framework to explore social relationships and evaluate risk, flexibility and constraints in
relation to workplace practice.
Working with the L4E framework seemed to facilitate a heightened sensitivity to aspects of
workplace practice that had previously been taken for granted as the ‘common sense’ of work
as the students ‘noticed’ their environment differently:
Yeah it did help me to notice…so for example with the marking I think it made me
notice the formal side of it…so it might be informal in terms of the way you
communicate but then you’ve got the formal paperwork that you’ve got to fill in…
Very good at drawing your attention to things…
So there were certain things that I may be didn’t look at initially that I went back and
used the grid I thought “oh yeah that fits in nicely there”
This enabled students to understand their situatedness – to see themselves as ‘expert
witnesses’ or ‘subjective participants’ always, already immersed in and entangled with the
day to day social practices of their work-based environments, “you’ve got the knowledge…
the grid helps you apply it and…then you can evaluate it,” that are in turn intricately linked to
wider life-world experience:
Or it might identify certain relationships, especially for example with Facebook or the
Twitter which you’d automatically think [it’s only for] ‘students’ but actually , it’s
open to the public, the public can see those…you realise there’s a difference to the
working relationships that you can have based on the different forms of
Using and discussing the grid stimulated new opportunities for forging connections between
aspects of experience that had previously been considered distinctive and unrelated, for
example work-based/public and non work-based/private such as Facebook, allowing
openings for new meaning-making about and interpretations of everyday practice:
I think it’s helpful to see how they link together…the grid is very good at making it
obvious if you like, how the constraints and how the logo or the identity work
together…how one piece of communication is common to a whole lot of things in the
grid. For example, at the nursery rules grid is showing how it can communicate…the
child’s identity as they belong to that nursery…or it can communicate the
constraints…the grid is very good at showing how one piece of text or conversation
has a whole lot of different categories to fall in to…
Noticing differently prompted re-evaluation, a reflexive ‘picking away’ at the everyday-ness
of long-held certainties as students moved around the grid applying the question prompts
destabilising, un-fixing and un-doing (the being and doing modes of L4E outlined in figure 2)
long held reference points as they grappled to engage with each dimension of the framework:
Diff lit used in a nursery I think that by using the grid it became very obvious first of
all that there’s kind of two separate erm types of lit used, I think the types of
communication used between adults and between adults to children are very different
and that’s in the style and the type of language used, it’s obviously a lot simpler for
children but also you haven’t got as much of it but also the way you’re expected to
communicate for example it’s much more multi-modal with children in the nursery
there are a lot of ways that the multimodal stuff is more positioned towards the
children…whereas the staff would use more technology, they’d be on the phone or
they’d be on the email …whereas the children would be given role play areas to
encourage interaction or given art and gluing and things to paly with to get them
learning how to communicate. I think it’s more centred around getting the children to
learn how to communicate rather than sharing any actual information with them. I
think in grid area 5, if you look at resources there are a whole load of things that do
go in to other areas of the grid as well…teaching children how to read or write rather
than teaching information about that.
The question prompts were appreciated as generative, dialogic openings, ways ‘in’ to
thinking a bit differently, “the thing about the grid” remarked one student is that it “[draws
your attention to] all those things that they don’t tell you about the job, that they don’t teach
you, it allows you to identify all those things that are going on in the job.” Users became
researchers, auto-ethnographers of the work-places setting describing, re-presenting and
playing with social and structural relations and reflecting on their own positionality and
choices and the affordances and constraints that framed these;
You’ve got the knowledge…the grid helps you apply it and…then you can evaluate it
For some this served to de-festishise the notion of employment readiness and instead to
interrogate their own motivation with regard participation in a particular set of social
practices, ‘reading themselves’ against Big D discourses of work.
clients are willing to wait for three hours purely because it’s free…with increasing
costs for solicitors and lawyers…clients are willing to give up a whole day…and
we’re shouldered with that burden as in we’ve really got to rise to expectation….with
this like I’m doing a law degree and I really do want to practice….but this placement
has really made me think what kind… do I really want to become that?...what kind?
Do I really want to become a lawyer? I think its really good, I didn’t really think
about…the grid was fine and as soon as I started to talk about it to the staff…I
thought is it something that I really want?
For this student in particular this meant taking responsibility for her own decision-making
asking herself what did it mean to her to be a lawyer in practice, what sorts of roles and
identities did it require her to enact and how did these collide with her existing values,
politics and preferred social identities.
Risks, Flexibility and constraints
Student researchers were quick to recognise the potential for sensitivities around the sort of
reflexive analysis they were engaged in and how their insights might position them in relation
to dominant rhetoric of the workplace. This led to discussion of the constraints of workplace
practice and consideration of individual positionality in relation to these;
I think if you were going to use it as something to learn about the literacies in
workplaces it might be something to use for yourself rather than comment on all the
time…I think in a nursery if we went in and said how flexible are we they would say
“oh we’re very flexible and we adhere to the child's needs and we do this and we do
that” and if you were using the grid you might say “well you don’t do this and you
don’t do that” and these are your constraints because I think they don’t necessarily
want that spoken about….
Identifying boundaries and the risks associated with boundary crossing mobilised potential
for agentic decision-making that re-interpreted rather than reproduced pervasive practice and
identities and opened up new possibilities for alternative ways of doing and being as a
worker, “Learning where you can be flexible and what your constraints are – where there is
leeway to make decisions”. Rules came to be understood as framing, rather than defining,
capacity for agency, with ideas about responsibility, purpose, morality and ethics mobilised to
mediate reactions, responses and decision-making:
In reality we’re told is that an interview with a client it is meant to be 15 minute, it
doesn’t happen, some take up to an hour because a client might be upset, they might
need to pop out or want to tell you more about the situation, rules are there for a
purpose and it’s great but sometimes in practice they don’t work. That’s what it’s
really highlighted for me that I’ve really picked up that there are rules but you’ve got
to be flexible to reach a purpose or fulfil an aim
Equally students used the grid to explore the entangled nature of life and work domains, in
the extract below for example the relationship between life-world and work-world identities,
priorities and concerns is scrutinised as the student begins to wonder what it means to make
choices about forms and mediums of communication and in turn (and perhaps more
importantly) whose interests are best served by decisions taken: -
We were told by member of staff training us that if a client speaks a certain language
and you speak it, for example I speak Punjabi, it’s up to you whether you want to
speak it or not but if you do the client might get used to you and ask for you again and
if you don’t they might not want to talk to you. If a client comes in and I can see that
they would really benefit from speaking Punjabi then I’ll do it. There was an example
of someone who I referred to a debt counsellor and the debt counsellor was Indian
too but refused to speak Punjabi, we were shocked, the clients come to you for help
and you’ve got the power to speak Punjabi but you’re not going to speak it…
This concern with how power is exercised in the work-place, a sense that “you won’t ever get
the ‘ideal client’” but instead need to engage creatively, flexibly but crucially, critically, with
the unpredictability of the circumstances within which you find yourself – “building
relationships and interacting is part of our job” - prompted interesting reflections on work-
based roles and social relationships.
Work-based roles and social relationships
Whilst the idea that “You’ve got to make people feel comfortable” influenced concept
making this was equally likely to be coupled with recognition that comfort and discomfort
were not entirely stable opposites,
Social interaction is really important and building relationships over time…making
decisions and taking risks – giving children a hug, [although the rules caution against
this] ‘mum’ would want us to pick them up and give them a hug
In this extract for example the tension between serving corporate guidelines and parents and
children as differently positioned clients within a practice is managed through a reckoning
and balancing of interpersonal relationships and action in context and decision-making is
contingent, dynamic and dialogic (see figure 2). This resonates with Stronach et al’s (2002)
descriptions of ‘jockying stories’ as student Nurses and Teachers ‘juggle’ and ‘toggle’ selves
and practices in their attempts to navigate the big D discourses of learning world of work
Teaching and Nursing.
Students also recognised the risk inherent in decision making, not only for themselves but
also for more senior or experienced colleagues, as individual commitments came in to
collision with with corporate values and priorities. Describing her work in retail this student
researcher reflected on the precarity of the employee experience, “Even the managers… if a
shop gets a new concept it’s the managers fighting for their own jobs….they’re fighting for
their jobs as much as we are”, noticing the instability and fragility of lived experience within
the context of world of work settings not only for herself but for more senior colleagues who
otherwise appeared to exercise power or control. These reflections often took student
researchers into conversations about Big D discourses about how the meanings of human
labour played out within different settings prompting them to be thoughtful about the ways in
which their relationships with risk (which were always informed by financial, social, cultural
capitals) allowed them to be more or less complicit or antagonistic in particular contexts.
Towards Concluding
…the ofsted logo…it’s like a badge to say… recognise how things change over time
and how workplaces change for example post ofsted when the branding of the
outstanding logo is being related to ‘career progression’
As the world-figuring explored above demonstrates, L4E re-imagines employability as a
process of enquiry rather than acquisition of skills, an opportunity to explore, investigate,
interpret and analyse workplace settings, and ones own entanglement with them. Re-viewing
the workplace through the embodied act of holding the lens to capture ‘a something’ –
moment, incident, artefact, interaction - that interests, engages or affects, the ‘hot-spot’
mentioned above, mobilises a very different approach to concept-making about
employability. Not simply ‘how can I fit in to this workplace’, but a whole series of key
questions about workplace dynamics;
How does it work?
Who does it work for?
What does it mean to play with and against the rules?
What does it mean to be successful in the context? What do I need to do to be successful?
What are the costs and benefits of my actions for different groups of stakeholders?
What do dominant values of ‘success’ look like in this context? How does this expression of
success articulate with my own attitudes, values and beliefs?
What does risk mean for me in this context?
What differences/contributions do I want to make?
What roles and identities are made available? How do these play with or against alternative
ways of doing and being?
We contend that such a approach will properly re-position students as students of the
workplace agentically, dialogically and critically engaged with workplaces as complex,
contingent systems. Furthermore we argue that this approach will enable students,
particularly those who are first generation higher education participants, to develop meta-
understandings of the workplace and recognise the ways of being and doing (identities,
allegiances, affiliations, attitudes, behaviours and structural relations) that pattern and frame
workplace interactions, understand their own positionality within those relations and make
decisions, based on thoughtful, self-conscious assessments of risk, about their own
participation. To this end we invoke Gee’s ‘bill of rights’ (2000: 67) about literacy. All young
people, Gee argues, but most especially minority and poor children have a right to: situated
practice; overt instruction that supports reflexivity and meta-awareness; critical framing; and
finally and perhaps crucially the right to transform and produce knowledge. The L4E
framework offers, we suggest, a strategy for an employability curriculum design that is
responsive to these priorities, useful most especially to those students who do not experience
work place identities as ‘fish in’ (Bourdieu 1992: 127). Furthermore we contend that the
processes of L4E, the use of an app to frame and support ethnographic approaches to practice
offers a broader potential for curriculum building in professional and vocational education.
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... If it is assumed a reductionist approach to employability based on a "toolbox" that students must acquire, the social dimension tends to be circumvented. In this way, issues of cultural capital and unequal power relations between individuals and groups are not taken into account (Kendall & French, 2018). ...
... To address this situation, they propose the development of policies and practices to improve relations between universities and the labour market. According to Jackson (2016) and Kendall and French (2018), employability, understood as the acquisition of key competences, does not fully capture the complexity of preparation for work and eludes the social dimension, issues of cultural capital and unequal power relations between individuals and groups. ...
... The participants recognised that the role of the university must go beyond the demands of the market. However, they do not refer to the influence of social factors, individual characteristics or unequal power relations on the employment outcomes of graduates (Clarke, 2018;Kendall & French, 2018). This reflects a market-oriented concept of employability and the fact that issues related to social inclusion are overlooked in debates on employability. ...
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In recent decades employability has become more visible and is part of the agenda of European universities, leading to a closer link between higher education and the labour market. In this context, the objectives of this study are: to analyse the approach to employability developed by the university; to find out the influence of employability policies on non-traditional students; and the alignment of the development of employability with the democratic mission of the university. Qualitative research has been carried out at one public university in Southern Spain, based on 40 in-depth interviews, undertaken with non-traditional students and graduates, employers, and university staff. The main results obtained are: the employability approach is based on the acquisition of key skills, in the framework of neoliberal policies; the opportunities offered to students to improve their employability are unevenly distributed and, therefore, scarcely available to underrepresented students; and the market-oriented concept of employability damages non-traditional students. The development of the democratic and inclusive role to be developed by the universities requires challenging the policies and practices on employability, that are based on neoliberal perspectives. This involves the visibility of the power relations at stake as well as the promotion of critical and reflective pedagogies, with the aim of questioning and reducing the inequalities faced by non-traditional students. Keywords: employability, higher education, inclusive education, neo-liberalism, nontraditional students
Los cambios en mundo laboral derivados de la globalización y el neoliberalismo han puesto a la empleabilidad en el centro de atención del desarrollo económico y social. Sin embargo, la falta de consenso en las teorías y las dimensiones que la definen reclaman un análisis de la investigación que permita su uso como estrategia de cambio social. El objetivo de este trabajo es realizar una revisión sistemática de los marcos teóricos sobre empleabilidad. Se ha realizado un análisis de 239 artículos científicos atendiendo a dos áreas temáticas: la historia del concepto y las perspectivas teóricas. Los resultados de esta revisión han permitido sistematizar y comprender las orientaciones teóricas desde las que se ha analizado la empleabilidad, las premisas que toman las diferentes teorías como punto de partida y los indicadores propuestos. A partir de todo ello, se han abierto algunas cuestiones para la reflexión de los agentes sociales vinculados a la educación, la acción social y al empleo.
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RESUMEN Los cambios en mundo laboral derivados de la globalización y el neoliberalismo han puesto a la empleabilidad en el centro de atención del desarrollo económico y social. Sin embargo, la falta de consenso en las teorías y las dimensiones que la definen reclaman un análisis de la investigación que permita su uso como estrategia de cambio social. El objetivo de este trabajo es realizar una revisión sistemática de los marcos teóricos sobre empleabilidad. Se ha realizado un análisis de 239 artículos científicos atendiendo a dos áreas temáticas: la historia del concepto y las perspectivas teóricas. Los resultados de esta revisión han permitido siste-matizar y comprender las orientaciones teóricas desde las que se ha analizado la empleabi-lidad, las premisas que toman las diferentes teorías como punto de partida y los indicadores propuestos. A partir de todo ello, se han abierto algunas cuestiones para la reflexión de los agentes sociales vinculados a la educación, la acción social y al empleo. PALABRAS CLAVE: Empleabilidad, vulnerabilidad, exclusión social, inserción laboral, merca-do laboral, desigualdad laboral, cambio social.
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This article analyses the discursive unities which make possible the current transformation of teacher training and our understanding of teaching as a profession, while focusing particularly on European educational policy and the situation in Slovakia. Using Foucault's archaeological method, we reconstruct the discursive link points between the circumscribed, and at first glance, different approaches to teacher training, where on the one hand, we have a humanistic and constructivist prism, and on the other, we find the pragmatic, economizing pressure of neoliberal educational policy. Discursive reconstruction, however, shows that these approaches are not contradictory, rather that a humanistic and constructivist discourse, by shaping a specific kind of subjectivity (the teachers), supports the neoliberal reform of teacher training and constitutes the reasoning upon which it is based. The analysis is conducted by drawing together various components: the logic of the higher education reforms, the changes to the epistemological basis of teacher training, the regulation of professional development through professional standards, the psychological content and general permeation of entrepreneurial culture into education right through to the performance culture of the ‘portfolios’, which are the typical attributes of neoliberal governmentality, and not only in teacher training.
Local Literacies is a unique study of everyday reading and writing. By concentrating on a selection of people in a particular community in Britain, the authors analyze how they use literacy in their day-to-day lives.This exploration provides a description of literacy at one point in time, and also reveals the nature and significance of communication to people, households and communities.Local Literacies, the first in-depth study of literacy, includes: * appendices of raw data * notes for teachers and students on how to use the book * guidance for carrying out individual researchLocal Literacies is both a theoretical work, and a practical book. It provides stimulating and informative reading for anyone interested in the nature of literacy today, particularly students, teachers and researchers.
For some time (around 100 years), the dominant influence in the shaping of curricula has been that of the academics in their separate knowledge fields. In the contemporary world, that academic hegemony is dissolving as curricula become subject to two contending patterns of change. Firstly, in a mass higher education system, there will be tendencies towards increased diversity in the components of curricula, the positioning of the providing institution being just one influence to which are added manifold 'external' influences, such as a growing student market and the interests of employers. Secondly, and in contradistinction to such diversity, as the state looks to see a greater responsiveness towards the world of work, it is possible that a universal shift in the direction of performativity is emerging: what counts is less what individuals know and more what individuals can do (as represented in their demonstrable 'skills'). Hitherto, systematic attention to curricula as such in higher education has been barely evident. Accordingly, curricula are taking on ad hoc patterns that are the unwitting outfall of this complex of forces at work, diversifying and universalising as—at the same time—these forces are. In consequence, curricula will be unlikely to yield the human qualities of being that the current age of supercomplexity requires.
This paper critically examines the ethical justification of non-advanced PostCompulsory Education and Training institutions, hereafter known as PCET, in a democracy. It concludes that, in terms of the major ethical theories, justification in this context is currently conducted primarily in terms of utilitarianism. References to PCET, both by government and by the institutions themselves, are frequently given in utilitarian terms. The organisations which comprise PCET, from Private Training Organisations to Colleges of Further Education, are presented as being instrumental in preparing individuals for work or fulfilling student (vocational) needs. Despite the current emphasis on vocationalism in PCET, the paper finds in democracy an ethical imperative to encourage the development of conceptual schemes and value literacy amongst all citizens. It concludes that policy measures have, despite the weaknesses in utilitarianism, encouraged wholesale vocationalism in PCET to the extent of neglecting the emergence of the reflective citizen. PCET is a stage in the educational process in which a democratic government should continue, through the curriculum, to realise its moral obligation to support a further generation of choosers.
This paper deals with the following questions:1The ‘problem’: what is the ‘Literacy Debate’ and why do such apparently arcane accounts of language and literacy have such a high profile in popular media?2What are the New Literacy Studies (NLS) and what are the new understandings of language and of literacy on which NLS are based?3. What are the implications for literacy education?
This article addresses the issue of student writing in higher education. It draws on the findings of an Economic and Social Research Council funded project which examined the contrasting expectations and interpretations of academic staff and students regarding undergraduate students" written assignments. It is suggested that the implicit models that have generally been used to understand student writing do not adequately take account of the importance of issues of identity and the institutional relationships of power and authority that surround, and are embedded within, diverse student writing practices across the university. A contrasting and therefore complementary perspective is used to present debates about "good" and "poor' student writing. The article outlines an 'academic literacies' framework which can take account of the conflicting and contested nature of writing practices, and may therefore be more valuable for understanding student writing in today's higher education than traditional models and approaches.
Universities in the UK and elsewhere are expected to demonstrate how they prepare their graduates for employment. At the same time the widening participation (WP) agenda for universities means that the student population is increasingly diverse and may have a pre-existing relationship with, and experience of, the world of work. Distance learners at The Open University (OU) are at the confluence of these two agendas, seeking to become graduates but with various experiences of both ‘graduate level’ and non-graduate level work. Drawing from verbal and textual data from focus groups and interviews conducted in OU regional and national centres in London and Ireland, we use Bourdieu and the concept of ‘illusio’, together with social and cultural capital to illustrate how these distance learners articulated their notions of employability and ‘graduateness’. We found learners developed a nuanced approach to employability as they worked to integrate their understandings of life experience and notions of graduateness. We suggest that if our aim is both to deliver learning ‘for its own sake’ and still meet the government's employability agenda, it would be helpful for practitioners to engage in early critical conversations with learners to provide the scaffolding necessary to enable students to translate their ‘real life’ experiences into language that employers both understand and value.