Doug Cole - Reflections from the European Association of International Education Conference in Seville, September 2017
Last week I attended the EAIE 2017 conference in Seville which saw over 6000 delegates coming together from 95 different countries to discuss topics related to internationalisation in Higher Education.
On the first day, I co-delivered a workshop with Dr Simon Robson, Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor from Northumbria University. Our workshop was focused on introducing participants to the HEA Embedding Employability in Higher Education Framework and how this has been embedded at Northumbria.
With 29 delegates from countries including Australia, the US, Switzerland, France, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Holland and the UK, the workshop presented an exciting opportunity to all learn from each other as part of a global community.
Reflecting on this session afterwards, it really struck me how much we all had in common, but how we articulate this in very different ways. Whilst understandable in some respects, this also means that there are inherent difficulties in really identifying the root causes to the major challenges we are all facing.
Language is very much at the heart of these challenges, I know I have said this before but being in this company has only reinforced this further for me. How we think about employability influences how we speak about employability, for senior leaders this then has a direct impact on policy, funding, resources and ultimately our success. Let’s also not forget at a practical level if academics are to try and explain employability to students in the context of their own subject and discipline, the language being used is also critical, so when and exactly how does this happen?
Skills are an area associated with employability and this was spoken about beyond our own workshop in a number of sessions at the conference. This label sadly masks the true richness and depth in terms of the value of the activities we provide for students, such as overseas exchanges. So why talk down the value of what we do? Why not broaden the discourse and help students see the full range of benefits and potential impact of them engaging in the activities we all work so hard to provide?
Another environment emerged during our discussions where language again is a key factor and this related to where the workshop participants reported experiencing challenges with engaging with their colleagues in their own institutions with the topic of employability. It was reported that these colleagues believed employability was not their responsibility and they questioned the very place of this concept in Higher Education at all. Well if we keep talking about employability in terms of skills and simply gaining a job, this is never likely to change. If we talk about employability as it is defined in the literature we may at least give ourselves a chance! Research to practice, isn’t that what Higher Education is all about? Well the same applies with employability.
How we talk about employability, the terminology we use has the potential to break down these misconceptions and barriers if positioned right. If we talk about employability in terms of learning, learning in different contexts, would we encounter the same resistance? At a conceptual level I would argue employability is simply that, all about learning in different contexts and this gets hidden under the dominant discourse so prevalent in the sector and which is essentially metric driven.
The themes of internationalisation and employability certainly intersect, this is clear, but we must recognise the true value of the activities we provide students and not just reduce these to a list of skills. Our Finnish colleague talked about mind set, our Dutch colleagues were speaking about character, in France schools look at values, this diverse language and terminology is exactly what is needed in order to inform and enable us to develop more effective approaches, but this breadth in the language is not often apparent in the UK.
Skills and jobs dominate the discourse, this impacts on peoples thinking, how we speak about employability really is so important and we have started to get into bad habits! We have a responsibility to nurture students on their journey as lifelong learners; we need to be sharing with them the factors that are important for their future success, no matter what their age, their programme of study or what they chose to do after graduating.
Brexit is clearly of concern to participants from the UK at this conference and how the potential loss of links with Europe will not only have a negative impact on internationalisation but employability too. This relationship is often overlooked. Studying abroad will provide the experiences and develop the kinds of qualities that even placements may not achieve.
So in summary we have a body of research that defines employability and simply put there is no 'skills based model' so why are we habitually describing employability as a set of skills? What about attitude and behaviour? Let’s learn from our colleagues outside the UK. We know employers are not selecting employees based simply on their skills, they are looking at competencies and most importantly are the candidates the right fit for the organisation, the role and the team they will be part of. So where in our education systems do we value these other qualities and characteristics? If we don't even talk about these wider factors we have a limited chance to then address them effectively in our practice.
We can learn so much from each other, across Europe and beyond, we really have more in common than we might realise. With so many different stakeholders involved in this area of work we really need to talk more and develop a shared language that unites us all in the complex challenge that is employability.