In this conversation style interview, Margo Griffith and Emeritus Professor Beverley Oliver dicuss Oliver’s research, thoughts and insights on rethinking employability after the release of her Whitepaper recently. She also provides further context around her recommendation that education providers focus on 3 factors that signal employability to their learners.
Watch on Channel Edalex (YouTube)
0:00 – Introduction
0:46 – Defining Employability in Today’s World
2:46 – An Untested Factor – Signalling Employability to Learners
6:15 – The Factors That Signal Employability
7:14 – How Education Providers Can Increase Their Employability Signals
9:20 – Understanding the Intersection of Skills, Learning Pathways and Employability
11:25 – Examples of How Learners Can Utilise Transferable Skills
13:34 – Increasing Employability – 3 Key Factors for Education Providers to Focus On
14:19 – Key Factor 1 – Defining and Measuring Employability
17:16 – Key Factor 2 – Enhance Employability Signals
18:15 -Key Factor 3 – Update Curriculum to Include an Employability Lens
Links to resources discussed in the interview
Compare Ed (AUS) – https://www.compared.edu.au/
Labour Market Information Portal (AUS) – https://lmip.gov.au/
Australian Beaureu of Statistics Census Data (AUS) – https://www.abs.gov.au/census
Graduate Outcomes Survey (AUS) – https://www.qilt.edu.au/qilt-surveys/graduate-employment
Graduate Outcomes Survey (UK) – https://www.graduateoutcomes.ac.uk/
Australian Jobs Report (AUS) – https://www.nationalskillscommission.gov.au/australian-jobs-report
(This transcript has been lightly edited for readability)
Margo Griffith (MG) – Hi I’m Margo from Edelex. Thanks for joining and I have today our guest Professor Beverley Oliver. Beverley is the Principal Consultant at EduBrief, she’s an Emeritus Professor at Deakin University where she was a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Education and an Alfred Deakin Professor which is the University’s highest honor.
Thanks for joining us and making time to chat today Beverley.
Beverley Oliver (BO) – It’s a pleasure Margo, lovely.
MG – Well good so I think let’s dive right in. This week you published a white paper around Rethinking Employability Beyond 2020 and you mentioned 10 recommendations for universities in that paper.
Now before we get to those recommendations, which is the good stuff, I’m really interested in your thoughts around employability. It’s a term that gets thrown around a lot these days, but what does it actually mean?
BO – Well, that is the burning question Margo and, I think – you know lots of us have been talking about employability and it’s poorly defined shall I say, or defined in many different ways. I also think – certainly in the circles I’ve been researching and publishing in – I note that employability is usually applied to undergraduate school leavers finishing their first degree and this is one of the things that has to change. So employability across the lifespan – and particularly I think it boils down to, what are the factors that help us find or create meaningful paid work and keep meaningful paid work.
And I think post COVID, this is something that is a burning question across all economies, all countries, all walks of life, all industries. I think it is the question of our time – “What kind of credential would help me find, create or retain meaningful paid work?” So I think that’s what it is. I think we need to collectively, as educators, rethink what we really mean by employability. In the paper, which we’re going to talk about in a minute, I talk about the difference between employment and employability. And really employability is the part that a provider can have most influence on.
MG – So Beverley, one of the the areas you mention in the paper, is something you call an ‘untested factor’ so making reference to the factors that can be influenced. One of these you mentioned as being an ‘untested factor’, which is signalling employability outcomes to potential learners. Would you mind just expanding on that for a little bit?
BO – Yes, I’m very happy to do that. Now, in my research looking at websites – for basically advertising courses to students on University websites in Australia, but in other countries as well – you rarely read, when you are reading the main ideas of the degree – why should I do this, what does it cost me, what are the fees and what are the likely career outcomes – there’s often very little hard evidence there, around ‘this is actually the percentage of our graduates who found or created meaningful paid work and this is how long it took them to do it’.
And I think what we’re dealing with – particularly in western countries – is a bit of disappointment to be honest Margo. We’ve had for example in Australia a demand-driven system. We’ve encouraged and incentivised younger people particularly to go to University get a degree…
I had a really compelling life experience about three years ago now, that really stopped me and made me think. That was on one Friday evening in Melbourne where I am, I was invited to an event with a hundred young people who were all graduates – mostly from Victorian Universities but also some from TAFE – but the vast majority from Universities, including the one that I worked at at the time. And these 100 young people were spending their weekend, preparing a report for Government to say – “Listen up, this is not great.” In essence, the message was:
“You know, I was a barista, I took on the idea of getting a degree because it was going to be great, and I finished the degree and guess what? I now have a degree and a debt – and I’m a barista.”
I felt, what have we been doing? You know, I absolutely believe in widening participation, I absolutely believe everyone has a right to a good education, but these days particularly – somewhere in the mind of the consumer, the person being educated – I believe most people, most of the time are looking for some kind of career advantage from a credential. And I think we as educators, have to be much more explicit about how realistic that is, whether there are jobs in the first place, because after widening participation in the UK particularly and in Australia, we have a lot more graduates competing for jobs at the very time when some graduate jobs are disappearing, so you have an intersecting problem.
So look, that’s a very long answer to the question but, you know, that’s a really important part. I don’t want people to undertake an education, be really disappointed and then stop being educated. I want people to keep being educated. So for me, It’s very much part of the moral value proposition of what we’re doing as educators, to deliver the benefits that we promise – explicitly or implicitly.
MG – So if we drill down into those employability signals, what do you think they are?
BO – At the moment, in national data indicators, they’re pretty broad, but you can see. There is a website called CompareEd, it’s actually created by the Australian Government – it’s pretty good. So it will show you if you’re thinking of doing postgraduate pharmacy, at University X, based on this much data and these many responses, this is the number of, or percentage of graduates who got full-time work after a certain period. So at least as a consumer – and someone who’s about to make a big investment of my time and my money – I have a reasonably good chance of understanding what the likelihood of success is. And I think that’s only fair quite frankly.
MG – Do you think Universities could be doing more – and I guess this probably ties into the recommendations that we’ll get to – but do you think Universities can be doing more overtly for students considering them as an option, to make it transparent around their their employability outcomes?
BO – I think it’s crucial. I think it’s very important that labour market analysis, it’s a new core literacy quite frankly, because particularly now that work has changed dramatically in 2020 and where it takes places has changed dramatically. I now work in my home all the time – and so do many others. I work digitally all the time – and so do many others, so work has changed fundamentally. I think Universities and other providers, need to think very hard about what the conditions and likelihood of success are, if you are going to find meaningful paid work. It’s all very well to say it’s on the ComparEd website, they can go there – they’re not necessarily, because people are coming to your website, to look at this degree. We should give them full disclosure about all the information at our fingertips. I think a really enterprising University or an astute University – I say University but I mean provider in general – you know, could actually use that ‘point of sale’, I’ll use that term, to educate the consumer about the labor market.
There’s really excellent information available for example in Australia at the Labor Market Information Portal, another Australian Government website, I think it’s fascinating, but if I were looking to do a degree I would need to know where that stuff was, number one, and I would need to have time to go and do all that research myself. I think it’s pretty basic marketing intelligence that good providers should make known to their learners.
MG – What about the outcomes – and I’m focusing mainly on skills – that language that you were talking about, the labor market language that I would think learners coming and graduating from our Universities at the moment possibly, don’t have that language for the labour market. Do you think that there is room to look at the way that Universities inform students around their skills, not necessarily the qualification that they end up with?
BO – Yes and I think it’s also about educating learners about the various pathways, from wherever they are at the time, to wherever they want to get to. So I think it’s two things – skills and pathways. You know, if I were starting out again in higher education as a lecturer and if I were asked to teach a core literacy called ‘Labor Market 101’, I would be drawing on things like, for example the census data, where we can see where – and I’m talking about the Australian census data now – where we can see for example that someone with a Bachelor of Management actually can be employed most commonly across 19 industries in Australia.
I would think, I would imagine, that a lot of students studying business think “Oh well, I’m going to work for a business,” but you know, health is a business, education’s a business, construction’s a business. So I think we need to educate learners today to think broadly around, what are the skills that I’ve got, how can I make them explicit to people – because I’m going to keep adding to them I hope – and then where is my pathway to exploit what I can offer and compete, but across all the 19 industries. Not just the one I think I’m going to work in.
If I give you another example Margo, one of the biggest cohorts that graduate from Australian Universities for sure, is teacher education. So we have primary, secondary teachers and so on. You learn a whole lot of skills as a teacher. You are a good project manager, you’re a crowd controller, you are all of those things. So, what roles could you play in other fields? If you can educate people, surely you can also think about the health industry, because people need education in health – and I know you would need discipline knowledge in health public promotion and so on – but what I’m saying is there are training and education fields right across all the industries. So I don’t think that’s what we do. I hope I’m wrong. But I think that’s how we should start to think about it.
MG – Couldn’t agree more. I think it’s a very linear and narrow view that graduates often have of where they can go with their qualification, as opposed to their broader skills.
BO – Look, I’ll give you another example Margo. I think, let’s take a pharmacy degree for example – 10, 20 years ago that was an absolute pathway to becoming a pharmacist, either a hospital pharmacist or a community pharmacist. But things are changing rapidly in that field. There is roboticization, I think that’s a word, but it is becoming much more robotic to dispense according to a formula. So if you’ve only thought of yourself as a pharmacist and you have all of that knowledge, I think it’s a moral obligation for us to help that learner understand where else could you apply this? Could you make yourself more useful in a broader field, like aged care, disability – because in case that designated job disappears, that knowledge is amazing – we’ve just been through a pandemic. Find a pharmacist quickly to help you understand what a vaccine is and that sort of thing.
MG – So Beverley, in the paper you mentioned Universities have limited influence over some of these external factors, such as education policy and labor markets and even graduates personal circumstances and ambitions. Now however, you feel that they have the power to influence three key areas. How to define and measure employability. How to enhance the employability signals of their credentials – both the micro and the macro – and also review all of their curricula through a tighter employability lens.
Would you mind just talking a little bit about those key areas and then perhaps touch on the recommendations you have for Universities to become more employability focused beyond 2020.
BO – Defining and measuring employability Margo, is about coming up with a useful indicator, because at the moment we rely – and I say we meaning Australia – we rely on national data coming out about two years later. So, two years at any given time we’re finding out what happened two years ago when we wait for the Graduate Outcome Survey and that’s quite good. It’s quite good data, I would just say that the UK [Graduate Outcomes] data is better, because it’s recently been revised and it’s much more nuanced.
So at the moment, a University gets pretty blunt data about the number of people employed and so on. What we all know is that some of those people are not employed for a very good reason. Number one, they might not want to be employed right now. They’re looking after an elderly parent, they’re having a baby and raising family. But a university has no control over that, so it’s a bit blunt. Even so, it’s not bad.
However, every University has access to a very big alumni database. So you know, you’re talking 200,000 people who’ve been through your University in the last 40, 60 whatever years. That is a very big population to regularly ask – what is helping you to find, create and retain paid employment across the life span? So tell us, how long it is since you did your last credential? What are you doing now? What helped, what didn’t? Including your most recent graduates.
You could also find more information about your cohorts. So while you’ve got students with you, you could ask them what their intentions are and why, to better understand who it is that we’re dealing with – they’re not all school leavers. Or, what do they plan to do next? Because what we will find – and much has been written about this by Andrew Norton and others – and he’s absolutely right. Some Universities have very high graduate outcomes survey data, they do really well, but what we know, is that in some of those Universities, because they’ve got a lot of mature students who are already employed, stayed employed and now they’re still employed. So in that sense they really can’t ‘claim credit’ in a way. So we need much better data and I think if we put our minds to it, we could have internal information, or a small group of universities to get much better information, getting more nuanced information about what graduates really are doing and what they want to do and whether – I guess the key question is: Did they derive the benefits they were seeking from that investment?
And you know, there are several benefits. A very large one I think for most will be career advantage, but there are others as well. So we could get much better data and I think that’s something that could be a really good piece of work.
The second recommendation, was to enhance the employability signals and this really goes back to what you and I were discussing a minute ago. Use that data to actually inform based on what your own graduates say and did, but also where the labor market is moving. I read a terrific document last year called Australian Jobs [Report] 2020. It’s an Australian Government publication. It educated me about – it’s a very short pdf, very well done – and it took me through the 19 industries and it showed me at a glance: what kind of jobs are growing, which ones aren’t, in each field and if I were looking for a new direction now, that’s a place I would go. So I’m thinking to myself, “Why isn’t every learner in Australia reading this document?” I mean it’s there, it’s very good. I don’t know that it’s actually put in front of learners. So I think there are some tools at our fingertips.
Well, the third recommendation is to review all the curricula through a tighter employability lens. And look – we’ve been doing this for years. I’ve worked with colleagues on graduate attributes, employability – it’s 20 years of work – and I think Australian Universities have done great work in this area… however…
Work has changed now. The conditions of work have changed. So therefore the curriculum must change as well. But, I think now what we really do need to look at, is drawing on that labor market analysis that we are now teaching our students, if we can see that jobs are going to not grow in a particular area, then I think we have a moral obligation – not to stop offering the degree, because we still want people to be educated – good for them if they want to learn forensic science, great. If there are no jobs, we need to tell them so they know what they’re getting into. Because I would never want to stop people following their passion. I think that’s what educators do, you let people learn about things they love.
But I think we have to be more explicit about helping them understand… well, what skills are you getting out of this that could be used to actually find and create meaningful work, if that’s what you’re looking for. So be much more explicit.
MG – Beverley, thanks so much for your time today. I’m sure that your comments – and certainly the white paper – will be discussed and pulled apart at length over strategy tables in the weeks to come. So, appreciate your time, always a pleasure to to speak with you.
BO – Thank you Margo.