Yesterday I participated in an, indeed, very engaging meeting. Nicklas Wykman, leader of the Conservative Youth Organization (Moderata Ungdomsförbund) visited Umeå and had a breakfast meeting with some of us from the Conservative Students of Umeå (Moderata Studenter I Umeå). Somehow the conversation developed around the issue of higher education which is a hot topic for every student, including me. As with the name of Lord Voldemort, there is also a Word-That-Must-Not-Be-Named in the Swedish academia, but as it is omnipresent in the modern Swedish debate on higher education, one can always sense it clearly in the air. Probably that is the reason why I reacted immediately when someone took up the issue of employability: “We should strive to adapt the higher education to the needs of the modern labour market, because higher education should lead to employment.”
Employability is a buzzword injected in the national debate on higher education by the so-called Bologna process, an initiative with the ambition to create the so-called European Higher Education Area. In other words, employability denotes the “ability to gain initial employment, to maintain employment, and to be able to move around within the labour market”. As the homepage of Bologna process continues:
“The role of higher education in this context is to equip students with skills and attributes (knowledge, attitudes and behaviours) that individuals need in the workplace and that employers require, and to ensure that people have the opportunities to maintain or renew those skills and attributes throughout their working lives. At the end of a course, students will thus have an in-depth knowledge of their subject as well as generic employability skills.”
As a doctoral student I often find myself in a confusing predicament – on the one hand, I am still a student, so I should be wary about my employability. I should not over-educate myself beyond any reasonable opportunity of employment, because I am told that me being unemployed after five years of PhD studies would be a loss for the whole society. On the other hand, I am almost a part of academia, so I should be equally wary about the employability of my students. No unnecessary cultural references to Shakespeare or Ingmar Bergman, students need only the information that will help them in getting stable jobs!
Be it as it is, I am very passionate about both of my roles and I am particularly passionate about the ideal of academic freedom. I mean that universities should be the sanctuary of the academic freedom, safe-guarded from the state, politicians and other actors who try to steer the academia in a certain direction. Therefore it is not a surprise that I am sceptical about this employability-frenzy. In this case, it seems to me that the European politicians aim at re-orienting the university towards some political goal (the free markets?). Employability is an attractive and populist instrument for steering the academic nitty-gritty in this or another way, basically deciding upon what should and what should not be taught at universities.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not against the free market. Nor am I against that the university graduates get a well-paid and stable job. But I am against state intervention in the higher education in the name of the students’ employability. In my humble opinion, higher education should strive at encouraging students to think critically (and reflect) which leads to the further self-development of individual (and eventually to a job). After all, it is quite probable that individual might have quite different aims for his studies than finding a job. Fair enough, one might say, but higher education is financed from the taxpayers’ purse, should not such an investment bring some tangible dividend to the society? Maybe. But who says that a critically thinking citizen is not a value-for-money per se? Or that the graduate cannot re-pay his debt to the society later in his life? And finally why cannot we avoid such debates about higher education as “social investment” by simply re-introducing the study fees for higher education in Sweden?