Evolution and revolution: preparing for the future

CC0 [pixabay]
CC0 [pixabay]
As a child I had an austere English teacher who frequently told my class that we must, “Say what we mean, and mean what we say”. I was reflecting on this recently while discussing the evolution and definitions of employability, and the benefit of a shared understanding and conception. If we truly mean for the University of Edinburgh experience to be the launch pad for future career success, how does employability align with our learning and teaching?

‘Employability’ obviously shares the same root as ’employment’ (from the Latin implicari, meaning ‘be involved in’, in case you were interested), but the two are not synonymous. Employment marks a point in time, and leaves our graduates at the mercy of labour market vagaries; employability is about a journey, equipping our graduates to navigate and succeed in this dynamic environment. Minocha et al (2017)[1] provide a helpful overview of both conceptions in the UK policy context, for those who want to consider this further.


A definition of employability, which had been widely used across the HE sector, including at Edinburgh, is that of Yorke (2004)[2]:

“A set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that make graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy.”

This potentially leads us further into the “saying what we mean”  territory….which skills, understandings and attributes? Our Graduates Attributes framework provides structure for this, but crucially recognises that this must be contextualised to the discipline. This was beautifully illustrated for me in a recent conversation with the owner of a tech start-up when they said “Well, I’m a geographer so I would think like that” – many years on from graduation he still identified with his ‘academic tribe’.

I mentioned earlier the vagaries of the labour market and the need to prepare our students for a constantly changing employment landscape – the learning and teaching environment we provide is central to this. Talk of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ and the rise of the robot has underlined the importance of the very attributes we seek to instil through academic study, such as curiosity, intellectual agility, creativity, critical thinking[3]. And a recent investigation into the perceptions of organisations who recruit our students suggests we are making progress in this regard.

Developing the employability and graduate attributes of our students is consistent with research-led learning and teaching. Explicitly and intentionally enabling our students to develop, value and articulate the skills, understanding and attributes they are acquiring through their learning is, however, vital to their ongoing employability. If we can do that in interdisciplinary settings, where ‘tribal’ difference can be recognised and appreciated and learning enriched, then so much the better.

A range of innovative and interesting practice will be highlighted in Teaching Matters over the coming month, which I hope will whet your appetite and encourage reflection on your context and role. If you would like to explore this further, please do contact me – I’d love to hear what it means to you.


[1] From graduate employability to employment

[2] Employability in Higher Education

[3] The Future of Skills: Employment in 2030

Shelagh Green

As well as being Director of the University’s Careers Service, Shelagh Green is President of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, the professional association for HE Careers and Employability. She is currently a member of the British Academy Steering Group reviewing the skills and attributes developed through Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

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