Graduate employability: Beyond the skills agenda
Thi Tuyet Tran
Although employability is high on the university agenda worldwide, there are no common ‘ingredients’
for it. Nonetheless, the dominant discourse of enhancing graduate employability in higher education
still focuses on the skills agenda. This chapter challenges the accepted link between the skills agenda
and graduate employability. It aims to forwards the message that the process of enhancing graduate
employability should go beyond the instrumental approach of equipping students with the knowledge
and skills employers require. Rather, student employment trajectory is complex, involved many factors,
and higher education or the first employment is just the beginning of that trajectory. Universities should
not only help their students develop their knowledge and skills, but also draw student awareness to the
outside societal and labour market conditions and find the way to enhance not only student human
capital (knowledge and skills) but also social capital (societal networking and understanding) and help
students to prepare themselves to be more flexible and adaptable to the local and international working
environment. It is also time for a more meaningful dialogue among governments, employers and
universities to identify collaborated roles and responsibilities of each party in the process of enhancing
Globalisation, knowledge economy, the changing needs of the post-industrial economy
and the expansion of higher education have created considerable changes in the
relationship between higher education and the society. One the one hand, mass higher
education reduces the rates of return to higher education (i.e. students have to pay higher
tuition fees and compete in a much more crowded and competitive skilled labour market
after graduation). On the other hand, the rapid changes in the globalised labour market
create uncertainties about the kinds of jobs awaiting graduates at the end of their studies;
There is no more clear employment prospects for graduates in most disciplines (Clarke,
2008; Clarke & Patrickson, 2008; Fallows & Steven, 2000; Hind, 2005; Tomlinson,
2012). The job security phenomenon is gradually fade out (Barnett, 2006; The
Association of Graduate Recruiters, 2009). Graduate employability has now become
one of the key drivers for higher education institutions regardless their institutional
Although employability is high on the university agenda worldwide, there is no
common definition and ‘ingredients’ for it. What employability is and what higher
education institutions (HEIs) should do about it is still a lively topic of debate in the
literature. Nonetheless, the dominant discourse of enhancing graduate employability in
HEIs still focuses on the skills agenda. Researchers and universities have spent time
investigating employers’ needs and developing lists of attributes and skills desirable by
employers. University curricular are adjusted to best address the development of these
Although the skill-led agenda does have its own merit, it also reveals problems. This
chapter aims to highlight the limitations of the skills agenda and argue that
employability is a complex trajectory, where skills development for students is essential
but not sufficient to ensure positive outcomes or positive career prospects. It will first
discuss the notion of employability and the emerging of the skills agenda. Then the
problems associated with the way employability is often measured will be reviewed
before approaching some alternative frameworks to address the situated nature of
learning and employability. The roles of higher education institutions and of students
themselves in the process of enhancing graduate employability will also be identified
Employability and the immerging of the skills agenda
Although employability has become a familiar term in higher education context, there
seems to be no common definition for it. Nonetheless, the dominant approach to
enhance graduate employability in universities is mostly based on the assumption that
employability is defined as having skills and abilities to find and retain employment and
to obtain new employment if required (Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry
& Business Council of Australia, 2002; Cox & King, 2006; Hillage & Pollard, 1998;
Moreland, 2006; Tran, 2016; UK Commission for Employment and Skills, 2009;
Yorke, 2006, 2010). For example, Yorke (2006, p.8) suggests:
Employability is a set of achievements – skills, understandings and
personal attributes – that makes graduates more likely to gain employment
and be successful in their chosen occupations.
Employability is understood as fitness or suitability for graduate employment. It cannot
assure employment outcome. Since gaining an appropriate employment highly depends
on the context of the labour market (Clarke, 2007) and personal circumstances and
attributes (McQuaid, 2006), employability may increase graduates’ chances of
obtaining graduate-level jobs, but does not assure them (Cabellero & Walker, 2010;
Clarke, 2007; Helyer, Lee, & Evans, 2011; Knight & Yorke, 2004; Leong & Kavanagh,
2013; Yorke, 2006).
Since employability is regarded as fitness or suitability for graduate employment, it is
rather subjective and thus, the primary responsibility for employability rests with
individual students and graduates (Leong & Kavanagh, 2013; McQuaid & Lindsay,
2005; Tan & French-Arnold, 2012; Tomlinson, 2007, 2010; Van Buren III, 2003).
University students are expected to be proactive and to actively improve their
knowledge and skills to meet the demand of the workplace in the changing context
(Bridgstock, 2009). Then, when they finish university and start searching for jobs in the
labour market, the responsibility is also on them as potential employees to ”acquire
knowledge, skills and abilities, and other characteristics valued by current and
prospective employers” (Fugate, Kinicki, & Ashforth, 2004, p. 15).
Nonetheless, dominant in the graduate employability literature is still the research with
suggestions about what universities should do to enhance work-readiness for their
students. Although it is claimed widely both in the government policy papers and in the
general literature that in the changing labour markets with such characteristics as
economic crisis and employment uncertainty, employability is held within individual’s
responsibility, HEIs are now “cast in an utilitarian role: to equip students with the
necessary skills” (Sin & Neave, 2016, pp. 1453-1454). This process is called as
‘instrumentalising higher education’ (Sin & Neave, 2016, p. 1454) or magic bullet
model of employability (Harvey, 2001).
Despite suspicious and criticism, the skills agenda has immerged in the higher education
context worldwide for the last two decades. The skills agenda is largely developed based
on the assumption that there is a ‘skill gap’ between what students could acquire in
universities and what is needed in the labour market, and thus university curriculum and
practices need to be adjusted in order to bridge “the disparity between industry needs
and higher education provision” (Jackson, 2013, p. 778). Accordingly, different
projects have been designed to explore employers’ needs, different lists of skills have
been developed, and university curriculum and practices have been adjusted to
accommodate the needs of the industry. There seem to be a popular belief that the tasks
in the universities (the learning setting) should be created as much similarly as possible
to the task in the real workplace (the application setting), and that the closer the learning
setting and the application setting are aligned, the better the development and transfer
of such skills will be (Analoui, 1993).
The skills agenda or the shifting focus in higher education on providing students with
knowledge, skills and competencies their need for their future career prospects has its
own merit. First, it creates the basic for highly trained labour force (Kalfa & Taksa,
2015), thus may help reduce the ‘learning curve’ for students in the transition from
university to employment (Mason, William, & Cranmer, 2009). In other words, when
the new employees are work-ready and highly adaptable, it not only saves employers’
time and money for in-house training for these new staff members, but also promises a
higher productivity levels contributing to the national economic growth and
competitiveness in the global market (Harvey, 2000; Watson, 2003). Second, it provides
rich information about the requirements of the knowledge economy, and helps
individuals to come up with informed decisions to enhance their knowledge and skills
to be not excluded from the labour market, or to re-entry into employment (Pont &
Werquin, 2001). Thus, it is unsurprising when the skills agenda informed by human
capital theory with a heavy emphasis on the acquisition of generic/core/transferable
skills desired by employers (such as communication skills, problem solving, teamwork
or interpersonal skills) has become one of the most significant developments in higher
education over the last few decades (Clarke, 2017; Kalfa & Taksa, 2015; Moore &
Nonetheless, the skills-led approach of employability does reveal problems. Indeed,
many educational researchers have criticised the instrumental approach of this agenda
where skills are either embedded into degree programs or expected to be developed
through internships, work placements and international mobility in different programs.
This approach fails to take into account other critical factors. First, Gallagher (2001)
questions the underlying assumption of this approach whether what to be taught is also
open to negotiation with employers. Tight (1998) and Jarvis (2000) complain that the
skill-led approach is informed by a naïve interpretation of employability when it bases
on the assumption that all related stakeholders, employers and employees included,
share a common point of view about the necessary skills and skills performance. Many
academics and researchers also express their worry over the vocational focus of the
skills agenda which may lead to the devaluing of teaching and learning. They also
criticise the simplistic view of employability popular in many universities which sees
the skills agenda as “narrowly conceived, relatively mechanical, and inimical to the
purposes of higher education” (Yorke & Knight, 2006, p. 567), and support Hyslop-
Margison and Sears’s (2007, p. 14) claim that the skill-led approaches all aim to equip
students with transferable employability skills, narrowing down teaching practices and
that this education policy “reduces learning to discursive ideological apparatus that
encourages student conformity to the market economy”.
Measuring of employability
Universities are now under pressure from the governments and other external
stakeholders to provide measurable outcomes of employability, and most often to meet
the learning outcome standards required by different accrediting bodies (Jackson,
2012). In many countries, surveys collecting information on employment of recent
graduates are conducted four/six months or one year after graduation. It is easy to find
such statement as ‘XXX percentage of AAA university graduates can find jobs four
months or six months after graduation’ on the websites or the advertising boards of
different universities. Nonetheless, after decades of effort, these employability
indicators do not show any significantly positive signals when both the number and the
proportion of graduates unemployed or underemployed after four months, six months
or a year after graduation are still on upward trend. This is also one of the findings in
Mason, Williams and Crammer’s (2009) study of the effects employability skills
initiatives on graduate labour market outcomes at an institutional level. They could not
see any evidence of the correspondent relationship between the focus on the teaching,
learning and assessment of employability skills and the labour market outcomes, i.e.
whether graduated had found jobs within six months of graduation or whether graduates
had secured graduate level jobs. Mason, Williams and Crammer’s research findings are
supported by other studies in the area, which all point to a common conclusion that
employment outcomes show that possessing employability skills does not guarantee
employment, not to say graduate-level employment (Clarke, 2017; Piróg, 2016; Scurry
& Blenkinsopp, 2011). Many employers keep the perception that academic achievement
is an insufficient indicator of a graduate’s employability as they often do not see “a tight
fit between higher education studies and specific employment niches” (Sin & Neave,
2016, p. 1457). It seems naive to think that the skills developed in the learning setting
will be directly transferred to the application setting.
Nonetheless, using labour market outcomes as a popular way to measure graduate
employability also seems to be problematic. Firstly, these measurable outcomes, as
Clarke (2017) points out, largely refer to institutional outcomes rather than graduate
outcomes. Harvey (2001, p. 97) also criticized the tendency to see employability as an
institutional achievement rather than “the propensity of the individual student to get
employment”. Since graduates are now required to be in charge of their own
employability, these general labour market indicators do not seem to make much sense
for them and many still cannot see their responsibility in the process of enhancing and
managing their own career prospects.
Secondly and more profoundly, most graduate surveys measure current employment
status, not employability - compared to the way employability is generally defined
(Clarke, 2017; Harvey, 2001). Employability, as discussed earlier, refers to the
graduates’ potential to obtain a job, while employment is actual job acquisition, or in
other words, employability does not assure employment (Yorke, 2006). Gaining
employment does not only depend on graduate knowledge, skills or the level of
suitability for employment, it also depends on many other personal attributes and
external factors. The popular way of using graduate employment outcomes as an
employability indicator challenges the normal way of defining employability. Should
employability also include other factors apart from the knowledge and skills desired by
employers? And if that is the case, how far university can do to enhance their student
employability and how much their can claim the success of their graduates in the
university-to-work transition is also their achievement? And then, the validity of the
assumptions underpinning employability as individual responsibility is also
questionable as students may not possess the will and/or the capacity to manage their
own careers in a labour market with full of uncertainties (Sin & Neave, 2016, p. 1450).
The general outcomes of the graduate surveys (which often indicate the proportion of
graduates finding full-time jobs in a given time period) also negate the differences in
employment opportunities and outcomes for different demographic groups. There is an
established body of literature suggesting the poorer employment opportunities and
outcomes among low socio-economic status groups such as immigrants, minority ethnic
groups, regional, indigenous people, or children from working class families
(Andrewartha & Harvey, 2017; Brooks, 2017; Pitman, Roberts, Bennett, & Richardson,
2017). There is no clear and reasonable explanation linking these demographic
characteristics with the knowledge and skills graduates could develop during their
university time, or in other words, “there are no reasonable grounds for assuming that
such graduates systematically differ from others in their ‘possession’ of such purported
skills” (Leonard Holmes, 2013, p. 546). Obviously socio-economic and cultural status
does have a certain impact on the employment outcome of graduates and this seems to
be out of control of both individual students and their universities.
The indicator of the proportion of graduates finding full-time jobs in a given time period
is also being criticized as it does not look at the quality aspect of the jobs graduates gain
access to after graduation. Underemployment has become a popular situation among
graduates in graduate-oversupply labour markets. Being employed does not necessary
to be a true indicator of a successful university-to-work transition. Thus, being
employed at an individual level and the number of graduates who are in employment at
an institutional level should not be enough to be counted as a clear measure of graduate
success (Blenkinsopp & Scurry, 2007; Scurry & Blenkinsopp, 2011).
Obviously external labour market factors have impacted on graduate employment
outcomes. Thus the employability approach with a general focus on skills and the
perception that graduates being employed is the outcome of the match between graduate
possessed skills and employers’ needs downplays the important demand-side factors,
such as the scarcity of jobs in the market, economic crisis, labour shortage or the
distance from economically dynamic areas (Lindsay & Pascual, 2009; McQuaid &
Lindsay, 2005; Sin & Neave, 2016; Tomlinson, 2012). Unemployment is often
explained as personal and institutional failure rather than the outcome of the lack of
market opportunities (Lindsay & Pascual, 2009). This explanation fails to address the
labour market problems or unfavourable economic conditions, which both individual
students and their universities have no means to control or interfere.
Rethinking graduate employability and the subsequence role of higher education
Many educational researchers have recognised the limitations of the skill-led agenda in
higher education and proposed alternative frameworks to overcome such limitations.
Kalfa and Taksa (2015) and Clarke (2013), for example, criticise the underlying
assumption of the skill-led approach that skills can be transferred across contexts, thus
ignores the situated nature of learning; decontextualizes, generalises and isolates skills
from the learner’s world. Kalfa and Taksa (2015), then based on Bourdieu’s cultural
theory, develop an alternative conceptual framework which consists three main
components: Field and Doxa, Habitus and Cultural Capital. With this framework,
employability is placed within each specific field of study (Field) where not only skills
or knowledge are important, but the network or the way agents see themselves with
others in the Field also matters. Fields are differentiated from one another by the
fundamental principles, beliefs and rules of behaviour (Doxa). Doxa is not always
explicit and is often taken for granted and viewed as inherently true by agents in the
same Field. Thus, challenges will arise when “one Field is increasingly influenced by
the Doxa of other Fields” (Kalfa & Taksa, 2015, p. 586). Employability also depends
on the way people think, feel and act subconsciously rather than consciously and in an
instrumental manner (Habitus).
Cultural capital, the last component of the Kalfa and Taksa’s (2015) framework, refers
to widely shared, high status cultural signals (attitudes, preferences, formal knowledge,
behaviours, goods and credentials). Thus, cultural capital is used for “social and cultural
exclusion, the formers referring to exclusion from jobs and the latter to exclusion from
high status groups” (Lamont & Lareau, 1988, p. 156). Exclusion is a critical issue that
is often overlooked when assessing employability. Nonetheless, investment in higher
education study is also considered as a process of cultural accumulation, and it offers a
route for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to develop cosmopolitan identities
for social inclusion (Beck, 2004).
Clarke (2017), develops another employability framework where skills, competencies
and work experience together are only one component of graduate employability, called
Human Capital. Human Capital, Social Capital (network, social class and university
ranking), Individual Behavious and Attributes are four main components forming
perceived employability. The perceived employability is the employees’ own
perception of their chance of success in the labour market and how they approach job
search. Nonetheless, perceived employability is also affected by the labour market
factors, especially in mass higher education when graduates are often over supplied.
Hinchliffe and Jolly (2011), on the other hand, do accept the neoliberal pressure for
higher education to provide work-ready graduates, and the need to understand and to
‘take in’ employers’ requirements. Nonetheless, they criticise the skills approach since
it is based on the assumption that skills performance must be measurable and
observable, thus ignores the complexity of graduateness and the fact that even
employers also “think beyond conventional skill discourse and attempt to probe a
broader range of graduate experience in order to assess their potential” (Hinchliffe &
Jolly, 2011, p. 575). They, then, based on Len Holmes’s (2001) argument emphasising
on the need to examine the condition of performance, and the employer perceptions of
graduates in respect of their employability, develop the concept of graduate identity and
claim that it is a way to deepen the understanding of graduate employability. Their four-
stranded concept of identity includes Values (personal ethics, social values and
contextual, organisational values, including the value of entrepreneurship), Intellect
(graduate’s ability to think critically, analyse and communicate information, reflect on
all aspects of their work and bring challenge and ideas to an organisation), Performance
(the ability to learn quickly and effectively and to develop skills appropriate to the role),
and Engagement (a willingness to meet personal, employment and social challenges
and to be ‘outward looking’). They claim that Performance – one of the four elements
in their concept is most closely aligned to the employability skills matrix popular in the
employability literature now. When assessing the potential of graduates, Performance
is only part of the criteria that employers take into account, instead, the four elements
of identity interpenetrate, and different employers often emphasis different facets of this
Although supporting the ‘graduate identity’ perspective on graduate employability,
Leonard Holmes’s (2013) argument does not share the common ground with Hinchliffe
and Jolly’s (2011) argument. Leonard Holmes (2013) argues that graduate identity is
socially negotiated and constructed and names it as ‘processual perspective on graduate
employability’, he compares this perspective with the other two perspectives, namely
possessive (the skills agenda) and positioning perspectives (considering cultural
capitals, personal capitals and habitus are those decide societal positioning of graduates)
on graduate employability and points out the limitations of the two latter perspectives.
Similar like other researchers, he criticises the possessive approach and names
numerous limitations associated with the names of different skills, how to measure and
assess such skills, how different parties make sense of the lists of skills, and most
importantly, he claims, the focus on skills and attributes as requirements for
employability, fails to explain employment outcomes which are generally different
among different demographic groups.
The above discussed employability frameworks varies, however, they were all
developed with the aim to overcome the limitations of the instrumental, simplistic skill-
led employability approach popularly deployed in the contemporary higher education
context. Their conceptualising frameworks also point out clearly that higher education
is only one factor alongside many others that make for employability, and thus, at best,
higher education can play only an enabling role (Yorke, 2006). Universities need to
develop a better understanding of the broad contexts their graduates are likely to be
engaged in in the future, then develop plans to assist their students in building not only
human capital (relevant knowledge, skills and attributes), but also social and cultural
Universities should also help students understand the importance of career self-
management and personal responsibility in managing, maintaining and enhancing
graduate employability. This is especially important in a market with over-supply of
graduates. Students need to be clear that their future prospects depend much on their
individual attributes (flexibility, adaptability, openness to challenges and new
experience), and that the university-to-work transition is most often not straight
forward, and often depends on students’ decisions and acts or the extend they enhance
their perceived employability and persuade employers that they are graduates worthy
of being employed.
This chapter has highlighted the limitations of the skills agenda currently dominated in
the higher education context worldwide. By problematizing the concept of
employability, the instrumental approach of developing skills for students and the
convenient but simplistic way of using labour market outcomes to measure
employability, this article points to the importance of contextual, social, institutional
and individual factors that all have great impacts on graduate employability and the
labour market outcomes of graduates. Several alternative conceptual frameworks have
also been introduced to pull up the complexity of the factors involved, where the input
from higher education matters and important, but not sufficient. In other words,
employability depends only in part on what universities provide.
Since graduate employability is multi-faceted and involves different stakeholders, in
order to ease the transition to employment among recent university graduates and
increase the productivity of these young people, not only universities, but other
stakeholders, i.e. government, employers and students themselves need to rethink about
their roles in the process of developing graduate employability. There is always a room
for different stakeholders to negotiate about their roles and responsibilities in this
process. It is time for a more meaningful dialogue between universities and employers
on what is work-ready and what each party can do for the employability trajectories of
the future skilled labour force. Governments should base on the current labour market
contexts to adjust the way employability is measured. They should also engage in the
dialogue with universities and employers to discuss such issues as the demand versus
supply in certain disciplines and working areas, and the characteristics and quality of
jobs recent graduates often enter and develop a feasible plan to regulate and direct the
market (e.g. to manage the number of students enrolling in the disciplines already
reaching market saturation, or to create means to help underemployed graduates to map
their way to better employment).
Employability is a journey and universities or the first employment after graduation are
just the beginning of that journey. It is up to individual graduates to enhance their
knowledge and skills, expand their networks, understand challenges and opportunities
for them in the market and come up with their own decisions and actions to lead their
journey. More than anybody else, they should understand that in the mass higher
education era, the over-supply of graduates is unavoidable, and if they do not want to
be unemployed or underemployed, they need to stand out in the crowd and develop their
identity in a way to persuade employers that they are worth to be selected.
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