By Professor Dawn Bennett
Employability is a buzz word and likely to remain so as performance-based funding comes into force, so what is employability in the context of design and the creative arts, and is it beyond the remit of a degree in these disciplines?
There is no short answer because employability as reported within the media, graduate outcomes surveys and so in is almost never employability; rather, it is employment. As Wilton (2011, p. 87) writes, this is nonsensical because it “is possible to be employable, yet unemployed or underemployed”.
Employability within the context of HE relates to the process by which we prepare students to negotiate graduate life and work. This is particularly true in times of economic recession, increased graduate competition and labour market change. For many design and creative arts disciplines, complex and precarious work has been a feature of careers for centuries; we are the experts! And yet we do not perform well in the metrics.
Following discussion at the recent DDCA meeting, this short article sets out strategies with which to challenge current policy, reporting and inaccurate perceptions of creative discipline graduate outcomes through renewed graduate outcomes data and evidence-based advocacy.
1. Deliver collaborative research
The prevalence of part-time, project-based work, often managed as a portfolio of multiple inconsistent roles, gives creative disciplines a significant advantage when it comes to understanding so-called “new” careers and the future of work. And yet the existing graduate outcomes survey privileges full-time jobs with a single employer. Collaborative research with alumni could enable us to provide the evidence base with which to rewrite the graduate metrics and advocate for their delivery 15 months after graduation as in the UK. We could also change the ways in which we engage students and academics in career conversations, normalising portfolio work and creating developmental agency among students.
I propose that the DDCA community undertake two collaborative research projects, enabled through a combination of cash and in-kind support. Given the membership of DDCA, we could deliver both projects within 18 months with a contribution of $1,000 per member.
2. Challenge media and Government reporting about creative disciplines
The consistent graduate outcomes messaging about creative disciplines is that they do not give a return on investment. The research proposed above would enable us to create a more nuanced, evidence-based narrative. It would enable us to be ready with media pieces for release each time negative media achieves a headline (see for example Australia’s useless university degrees). These pieces could go to the media, to institutions, to industry, to faculty and directly to students.
3. Change the language
The language of employment/employability is outdated and largely irrelevant for many students. See, for example, university workshops on getting a “job”, or being hired by a “firm” in a “graduate program”. We can change (translate) the language within schools and faculties by replacing every-day language as follows:
Job becomes work or role
Internship becomes placement or experience
Skill becomes capability
Employers become employers and clients
Firm becomes business
Another way to normalise the complex nature of work in the creative disciplines is to renew the images on institutional websites and in marketing and recruitment materials. Most existing images will illustrate an outcome or output. How many images illustrate work that is administrative or embedded within the process of development? How many images celebrate technical roles, teaching roles, work in community etc? These images are more accurate of a creative practice and they also serve to normalise complex roles.
Similarly, undertaking program reviews or programming the following year’s creative works present opportunities to review for inclusivity. Do concert programs include works by women? Do set works and texts include people from diverse cultural backgrounds? Do guest lecturers and artists represent diversity? Can the creative process and creative practice be shared with students?
4. HE advocacy: Economic vs societal benefit
There is no doubt that government policy is focussed on purely economic outcomes. This is at odds with the nature of contemporary work and the social mission of higher education.
Rankings exercises and steering mechanisms promote self-interest and status competition ahead of public good. Given the inherent societal links of creative disciplines, the DDCA is in an excellent position to action what Marginson (2011, p. 422) describes as a “networked and potentially more egalitarian university world patterned by communications, collegiality, linkages, partnerships and global consortia”. One way of starting this work is to bring into view the careers of practising artists and designers through a series of career stories. Two of these per DDCA member would create an invaluable resource.
5. Make it relevant
Creating curricular relevance does not mean making everything vocational! Students are interested in developing their employability if it is relayed as developing the futures to which they aspire. We need to help students find the relevance between the learning we assign them and their future lives and work. Students and faculty need to rethink employability as something that requires work throughout the career lifespan and is mindful of self, profession and society: for example, as “the ability to find, create and sustain meaningful work across the career lifespan and in multiple contexts” (Bennett, 2018, p. i).
All learning should have relevance to possible disciplinary, societal, personal, creative and/or professional futures of students. “If the learning we ask of students is relevant, we should articulate its relevance. If it is not relevant, we should stop teaching it. This is a challenge not to make every program vocational, but to make every program developmental and relevant” (Bennett, 2019, p. 50).
Bennett, D. (2018, March 12). Why higher education and employABILITY thinking go hand in hand. Student Success blog for the Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows. Available at: https://altf.org/student-success-blog/why-higher-education-and-employability-thinking-go-hand-in-hand/
Bennett, D. (2019). Graduate employability and higher education: Past, present and future. HERDSA Review of Higher Education, 5, 31-61. Available at http://www.herdsa.org.au/herdsa-review-higher-education-vol-5/31-61.
Marginson, S. (2011). Higher education and public good. Higher Education Quarterly, 65(4), 411–433. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2273.2011.00496.x.
Wilton, N. (2011). Do employability skills really matter in the UK graduate labour market? The case of business and management graduates. Work, Employment and Society, 25(1), 85–100. doi: 10.1177/0950017010389244.
Dawn Bennett is John Curtin Distinguished Professor of Higher Education and Director of the EmployABILITY and Creative Workforce Initiatives with Curtin University. She is an expert on the development of graduate employability within higher education. A National Senior Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow and Principal Fellow with the Higher Education Academy, Dawn is an Adjunct Professor with Griffith and Monash Universities, a Visiting Fellow with the Sibelius Academy and a Research Fellow with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. Dawn has contributed to over AUD$6m in research grants, 240 academic articles and 10 books. She is editor-in-chief for two Routledge series in Higher Music Education. Publications appear at Researchgate.
The employABILITY Initiative features websites for both educators and students. The work includes student resources, educator guides, faculty and student workshops and a validated socio-cognitive measure known as Literacies for Life (L4L). A dedicated educator site features plain language employABILITY thinking student resources, educator guides and expert guides. Educators can also request aggregated cohort-wide data and engage with the research. Activities, research and writing from the Initiative are regularly updated in the EmployABILITY research lab and in the Community of Practice.