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Employability in Humanities

Dr Jennifer O'Brien, Lecturer in Human Geography

Whilst ‘employability’ is almost a ubiquitous term in a metrics fuelled higher academic landscape, it is also a complex one.  Many authors warn against being simplistic when defining the multidimensional term.  Tymon (2013) and Kreeber (2006) to name but a few, for example, stress the need to recognise the specifics of the discipline, the learner, and the job market when considering employability within a teaching and learning agenda.  Hugh-Jones et al., (2006) further enhance the complexity by suggesting that employability means different things from the three, arguably disparate, perspectives of the employer, the student and the higher education institution.  Furthermore, as any staff delivering employability in teaching and learning would know, the point of employability thinking within the course of a degree shapes its interpretation too.  

Particularly in non-vocational degree subjects there is a palpable tension between equipping our globally aware graduates with the skills that they need to capitalise on their degree investment, and delivering the foundational learning that characterises a higher education.  Or, perhaps the tension lies in facilitating students to recognise that there need not necessarily be a distinction between the two.  A growing debate in the literature is whether employability should be synonymous with learning and thus embedded throughout the curriculum (Kreber, 2006), or delivered as ‘value added’ outside of formal teaching (Ng and Feldman, 2009), or lie somewhere between the two.  This has generated further challenge over which actors are responsible for employability development; whether it is careers services, academics, alumni, industry professionals, the students themselves or a combination thereof, generating difficult questions for teaching and learning. 

The Geography Employability Programme is a tangible example.  The 20 credit graded module aimed to consolidate students’ understanding of their skills and enhance their capacity to market them to a host of employment destinations.  With support from the Careers Service I brought in industry professionals and alumni, we ran genuine assessment centre exercises and each student had the opportunity to have an individual filmed job interview.  After years of development the unit survey scores were, at best, disappointing with students resenting ‘wasting’ 20 credits on material that is ‘not geography’.  For the next academic year the tangible ‘employability’ teaching (interviews, assessment centres and so forth), will be part of a broader module; Skills for Geographers aims to assist our students to recognise that the capacity to research - whether questions of social justice, or carbon sequestion in peat - is a skill as transferable as the ability to produce a policy document but one that still needs careful representation on a CV or at interview.

In the interests of sharing teaching and learning experience, this set of articles reflects different approaches to employability teaching, naturally depending upon the definition and the actors involved: 


Hugh-Jones, S.E. et al., (2006) The graduate: Are we giving employers what they want? Paper presented at the Teaching and Learning Conference in Leeds, Jan 6th.
Kreber, C. (2006) Setting the context: The climate of university teaching and learning. New Directions for Higher Education 133: 5-11
Ng, T.W., and Feldman, D. (2009) How broadly does education contribute to job performance? Personnel Psychology 62: 89-104
Tymon, A. (2013) The student perspective on employability Studies in HE 38 (6) 841-856