Keep the Door of My Lips: Exhibition Booklet. Working on Employment

Facilitating Potential?

Employability and British Universities in 2019

One thing shared by many recent novels set on University campuses is a satire on the modern University’s supposed tendency to value career planning over traditional study. Even in an undisputed masterpiece such as J.M. Coetzee’s Booker prize-winning Disgrace (1999), we find a slightly lazy critique of South African higher education: following what is termed the ‘great rationalisation,’ a former professor of modern languages is presented to us teaching two modules, one on ‘communication skills’, and one on Romantic literature.

Despite this satire being over the top and somewhat detached from the still generally very academically-focused teaching in the UK of, for instance, English Literature (my discipline), nonetheless it is the case that in recent years the concept of the ‘outcomes’ of Higher Education in the UK has somewhat narrowed in its focus. It is not unfair to say that post-graduation employment is the main concern of the current government in how it grades the ‘quality’ of an institution.

What I want to do in this short piece is first to explain what graduate ‘Employability’ is. How is it defined, who defines it and why? These are questions we constantly ask in English Literature of all sorts of terms and they seem as apposite here as they do when the Victorians extoll the virtues of ‘work.’ The media make it sound so simple and obvious, but it’s actually based on certain notions that not everyone shares. I’ll explore that notion of graduate employability before thinking about what effects it has on what we and students do at university.


The Teaching Excellence Framework (‘TEF’), introduced in 2016, was designed to ‘give students clear, understandable information about where the best teaching is on offer.’ From the start it focused on quantifiable metrics rather than actual inspections or teaching observation. Many academics have noted that the exercise cannot really gauge the quality of teaching if it is focused largely on statistics about student experience and post-graduation jobs (‘destinations’), and yet as the exercise has developed, it has more squarely focused on the latter as an indicator of the merits of a University and a degree programme. This is reflected in its current title: ‘Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework’ (which is still abbreviated to ‘TEF’).

To many academics, the idea that teaching excellence should be gauged primarily via metrics, let alone (as we shall see) metrics about type of employment after 6 months, and salary over time, is absurd. As the graduate intern Victoria Tunn is aware in this booklet, it is indeed the case that many other factors – chief among them pre-existing capital of various forms – come to bear on post-graduation success, and as such the employment outcome cannot entirely (or even mainly) reflect the way a course of study was delivered or the quality of its teaching. Yet at the same time, it is also the case that some academics deny the impact that degree-level study can have on the development of varying forms of capital, and thus, potentially, on employment outcomes. They can also at times deny a link which most students continue to believe in, that their degree subject and future earning potential are closely connected.

‘The Blacksmith’s Lunch Hour.’ The British Workman, April 1880. Even in leisure time the dutiful worker educates himself.

The Universities Minister recently spoke at an event entitled ‘The Secret Life of Students,’ and noted that ‘not all students want a high paying career or even have a career plan.’ Despite the TEF’s continuing focus on potential earnings as a benchmark of a degree’s quality, it was nonetheless cheering to hear this from such a senior figure. This welcome acknowledgment illustrates the mixed responsibility which Universities have on employability. High performance on graduate outcomes statistics is central to the way HE institutions are ‘graded’ externally, and often how departments and degree courses are rated internally; yet universities have, for many years (if not centuries), acted as facilitators for the development of students’ potential after they graduate.

The question, though, of how the facilitation of potential is defined and measured is a controversial one. For a good while, the dominant measure was the Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education survey. This survey informed most of the media discussion of ‘graduate jobs’ even though its nature was not widely understood. It was a survey of the occupations of graduates on a single day six months after their graduation, where universities were responsible for their own returns, and which also took for granted that graduates who responded were providing accurate information not just on their main occupation but on their salaries, addresses of employers, and other details.

British Workman, June 1863. Animals working dutifully for their families – a graphic ‘proof’ of the magazine’s argument that work is natural, cooperative and fundamentally domestic – a long way from graduate outcomes!

Even if one were to accept the veracity of all this information, we should also look at what use the data is put to. Most prospective students and their parents would want the end result of three years of study to be a ‘graduate-level job.’ However, the definition of a ‘graduate-level job’ is probably not what one would expect; certainly when I have run training sessions on this for colleagues there has been some surprise. Instead of a ‘graduate-level job’ being one which requires an honours degree as a pre-requisite, it instead meant (and indeed still means) a job which fell into the ‘professional/managerial’ classification in a 2010 list of occupations produced by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). It would probably be a surprise to many people that, thanks to the inflexibility of the ONS definitions, a job such as a Graduate Teaching Assistant – a solid, paid route into a teaching career, which has a degree as a pre-requisite – would not be classified as ‘graduate-level,’ whereas an entertainer at children’s birthday parties definitely would.

Such very obvious problems led to a new survey, Graduate Outcomes, being launched. This survey asks graduates what they are doing over the course of a week 15 months after graduation. This has, in general, been welcomed, reflecting as it does the difficulties of finding a job one is happy with so soon after graduation in a crowded labour market and a frequently underperforming economy. There are, though, a couple of caveats. The first is that the Gradate Outcomes survey will still rely on the curious ONS definitions of ‘graduate-level’ work; the other is that it will be complemented by statistics on salary from a different source, the ‘Longitudinal Education Outcomes’ survey (LEO). This consists of data on salary over time gathered from HMRC (the ‘tax people’). This ‘LEO’ data can be considered relatively accurate, yet by its nature it is not up to date, and since not all occupations attractive to graduates provide high salaries, it can be somewhat distorting as a guide to the ‘value’ of a degree. 


Such then is the landscape in which Universities operate, in relation to what is frequently termed ‘Employability’. In the second part of this piece I will discuss some of the ways in which Universities – both in terms of degree courses and in terms of wider student support – can help to support their students’ preparation for life after graduation, and also to improve (or maintain) their own positions in exercises such as the TEF and in league tables. I will inevitably focus in part on my own University, of whose work in Employability I am proud, but much of what I will say of Greenwich is true of others.

Despite many newspaper commentaries on universities assuming that most students are assessed primarily by exams in their final years (possibly belying the dominance in journalism of Oxbridge graduates who left University some time ago), it is now the case that degree programmes proactively design their assessments with a view to developing and gauging various skills in their students. This means that, moving away from the typical essay/exam assessment style (notwithstanding the continuing importance of these assessment types), degrees now assess students in ways which can help them to both showcase and develop many other skills necessary after graduation – increasingly necessary in a rapidly changing employment world. For instance, since the year the ONS published its list of graduate occupations in 2010, the job description of, for instance, ‘Journalist’ has changed quite radically. An aspiring writer on politics or sports will now need to not only know intimately the worlds they wish to write about and to research and produce high-quality written copy, but will also need to have a solid brand and following on at least three social media platforms (and to be relied on to respond instantly, and on brand, to queries and news stories), to be capable of producing video content of fairly high quality, as well as being able to record and contribute to audio material, not least podcasts – this at the very least.

This example demonstrates that universities, in preparing students for life after graduation, need to help their students develop a variety of skills, both subject-specific (like writing clearly and logically according to the conventions of different subjects and understanding technical terms) and to also develop adaptability and resilience. Examples of such assessment at the University of Greenwich are myriad. Students can make podcasts involving their historical research; they can produce marketing packs for imagined editions of literary texts; they can produce real-life business models, work on legal cases, and produce professional-standard films, along with longer-form pieces of creative and critical writing. Some of these creative pieces have been developed, after graduation, into prizewinning published work, while business models produced for assessment have led to successful companies being founded. On a wider level, students can develop a portfolio of work and demonstrate a capacity to innovate and adapt which they can showcase to potential employers. The accounts of successful graduates of their performance at interview suggests that this can be highly effective in distinguishing them from other candidates.

In addition to such programme-based assessments, UK Universities also typically offer support outside of the seminar room. The traditional forms of employer engagement remain – the annual careers fair featuring stalls hosted by (typically) multinational employers, plus the ‘milk-round’ of presentations by similar companies, along with the summer internships offered by such employers. However much these traditional gateways remain with us, the typical student nowadays might find it hard to abandon a long-term part-time paid job for a month or two as an unpaid intern in the summer. As a result, universities are increasingly encouraging students, regardless of programme of study, to take a ‘sandwich year’ – previously often termed a ‘year in industry’ – between their second and third years.

This is frequently much more attractive to students than the summer internships traditionally offered, and such years have a very impressive track record of securing jobs after graduation. Again, for some students this is too much of a commitment, and Universities endeavour to accommodate this as well, offering, for instance, work-based learning modules where students spend time at an employer and then produce coursework related to their experiences.

All of the above opportunities, from career fairs to placements, are often brokered by dedicated staff at universities. There has long been an organisation dedicated to such staff (AGCAS, the Association of Careers Advisory Services, of which my grandfather, Colin Slipper, was a founder member), offering its own training and related events, though in recent years there has been an increased shift towards career advisors at Universities having backgrounds in recruitment, enabling a wider offering of advice to undergraduates.

Almost all graduates are entitled to continue using the career service of their alma mater some time after graduation, and this in turn helps to maintain a relationship between graduates and institutions which can help produce, for instance, mentors for current undergraduates. Indeed, being mentored can be one of the most productive ways for undergraduates to develop their networks and workplace experience while keeping on top of their studies. A mentor offers a figure that students can relate to, and of whom they can ask questions which they might be less comfortable raising at a career fair or on a paid internship.

For many students (and indeed many employers), however, the primary contacts at university are lecturing staff. It is very difficult for any of the activities I’ve described to take place without the cooperation and support of lecturers, and it is lecturers who will typically be called on as referees for the positions which graduates apply for once they have left. This means that a strong personal tutoring system can be the motor of graduate success, and, increasingly, the one-to- one meetings which have always taken place are complemented by electronic applications, such as Learning Analytics, Personal Tutor Management Systems, and schemes such as the Greenwich Employability Passport, where students upload evidence of the extracurricular activities which are so vital to standing out in a crowded graduate labour market. Lecturers ‘approve’ these if true and appropriate, and also get to know their tutees better, while the tutees gain points which go towards rewards such as professional headshot photographs and invitations to networking events.

The masthead of the 1st issue of the British Workman, 1855. For more on this, see

The world of employment in the twenty-first century is very different from that of the mid to late nineteenth, and several of the blogposts on the BLT19 website establish this in very interesting ways, as does the contrast of the artists’ work with the images from the Victorian periodicalsin this exhibition.

On the front page of the first edition of the penny monthly magazine, the British Workman, published next door to the British Workwoman, various terms are used for the intended (male) audience – in addition to ‘workman,’ we have ‘sons of toil,’ ‘employers and employed,’ and ‘working classes.’ And unlike the images in the British Workwoman, even the masthead offers a big range of jobs men could do. But, like the ONS definitions, they were still arbitrary and limited in what they regarded as worthwhile ‘work.’ While our undergraduates today would identify as ‘students’ by and large, irrespective of age or sex, for the most part they are also united in seeing themselves as ‘future employees’ and indeed ‘future employers.’ We want to help them realise those aspirations and not bind them to specific jobs depicted as worthy on a masthead or a 2010 ONS list. While there is still much to do, UK universities are responding in a proactive manner to what is best for the student, not the statistics.

In such a rapidly-changing marketplace both in higher education and wider employment, resting on one’s laurels or, like Coetzee’s professor, fencing Employability into ‘communication skills’ courses – or heroic or domestic images and energetic mastheads ‑ is simply not an option. The fostering of employability, conceived as the wider facilitation of our students’ potential, is everywhere in what we do for students at Greenwich today, and something we are passionately committed to.

Dr John Morton

Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences Employability Lead