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Employability

The following is a set of excerpts from “Student advancement of graduates employability: Student Handbook on Employability” and “Student advancement of graduates employability: Employability With Students' Eyes” from the project “Student Advancement of Employability (SAGE).”

1. Introduction
Employability was first mentioned in the Sorbonne Declaration in 1998 becoming one of the key ideas behind of a harmonised European higher education system (REF). The definition of employability has been changing ever since, gaining new forms and contexts. In the Bologna Declaration signed on 19 June, 1999, employability was referred to as “citizens employability” (3), while in Prague Communiqué signed 19 May, 2001, it was clarified as “graduate employability” (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education: 2).

The urge to recover from the economic crisis, together with the unemployment rates in Europe, have brought employability back to the centre of attention. The understanding of employability largely depends on the national and institutional contexts. Thus, discussions on (un)employment rates have been increasingly linked to education, becoming one of the indicators of quality education provision at higher education institutions. This approach requires an immediate reaction to remind decision-makers of the multiple purposes of higher education. Higher education prepares students not only for employment, but for life as active citizens in democratic societies, as well as in their personal development and the development and maintenance of a broad, advanced knowledge base.

However, education and employability should not be seen as disconnected processes. Although the labour market must not steer higher education in any way, cooperation with stakeholders should provide a sufficient information flow between higher education institutions, employers, teachers, students and wider society in order to improve graduates’ chances in the labour market and in further learning. European students are in support of a curriculum reform that is combined with quality work placements, traineeships or internships through the European Quality Charter on Internships and Apprenticeships, support services for seeking employment and stakeholder consultation alongside adequate graduate tracking.

Students in Europe have created a unique definition of employability that embraces all of the different aspects on the concept:
“Employability is a broad concept, which includes subject-specific, methodological, social and individual competences, which enable graduates to successfully take up and pursue a profession/employment and empower their lifelong-learning. Employability is also about making graduates more likely to gain employment in their chosen field(s), being able to create/start new businesses, and being able to develop and succeed in their occupations.” (ESU 2014)

2. Main findings

The links between employment and education are numerous and multi-faceted.

Internships for practical experience

In some countries, internships are a mandatory part of study programmes, while in others, students must choose if they would like to participate in an internship. Alternatively, internships take place after studies have been completed in certain countries. Whether the internship is paid or not, depends on the specific higher education institution, study programme or field of study and even how the student manages to negotiate the terms and conditions of the intern­ship. Likewise, the quality and level of responsibility differ from one internship to another. As the aim of in­ternships is to challenge and provide students with extra knowledge and op­portunities, internships should be well-planned and taken seriously by the host­ing part of the internship. The role higher education institutions play in ensuring good quality internships should be debated within the institutions. Alarmingly, the practice of unpaid internships has become increasingly common, partly as a result of the economic crisis.

Students supposed lack of experience is now often used as a pretext to offer internships, as opposed to permanent employment contracts to graduates. Internships are of considerable value to employers: they enable a company to test potential recruits, they offer a way of circumventing rigid labour laws in certain countries, and they often mean reduced overhead costs related to the activities performed by interns. Meanwhile, the intern gains learning experience, in some cases irrelevant to the field of study, and may or may not have the opportunity to make sectorial contacts in the area in which he or she undertakes the internship. Such forms of activity provide little to no security and usually low levels of income, thus they become problematic if prolonged.
Need for data collection.

In 2007, there was an agreement on the need for data collection on employability, in order to have it included in the stocktaking report (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education 2007). At the time, the Bologna Follow-Up Working Group on Employability identified a series of outstanding issues related to the employability of graduates, such as the over-supply in a few sectors. It also identified issues of access and the issue of cycle employability as important points to be raised in any comprehensive debate on education and employability (EHEA 2009). While discussing employability and the Bologna Process, one of the most interesting aspects to look at is that of current and potential links with various Bologna action lines and developments, as well as multiple European Union political initiatives. Employability in itself is both influenced by and influential for the way in which Bologna-inspired educational reforms are carried out.

Employability is also a prominent goal for most governments, especially since this is perceived as return on investment considering the high deficits that most Western European governments run. As a result, there has been an increased tendency for governments to look at higher education from an economic perspective. This has been considerably evident when budget cuts have been made during the recent financial crisis, especially the fields of humanities and social science have been disproportionately affected, now being perceived as less economically rewarding.

This increasing focus on the subject of employability by governments and political stakeholders has often met with strong, negative reactions from other educational stakeholders. This has been quite characteristic of the student movement, for example, with most ESU debates on the topic emphasising the importance of keeping academic values at the core of education as opposed to transforming HEIs into agents for economic developments as such.

Youth unemployment higher than general unemployment
On the issue of youth unemployment, It is also important to note that there are significant fluctuations in how this rate is calculated. However, the clear trend for most countries is a rate of youth unemployment at least twice that of the national average.

Part time jobs increased
In addition to the disparity between general and youth unemployment, the issue of quality of work must also be addressed. The total employment rate has fallen, and within the diminishing category of working people, the share of those that worked part-time increased. The share of part-time workers rose from 18,8% to 20,0% between 2008 and 2012, with steeper increases recorded in several central and eastern European countries ( especially the Baltics), Ireland, Spain, Italy and Finland, all above EU-27 average. In many EU countries the share of people working part-time is now above 25%. This includes Germany and the United Kingdom; the countries that have had the best results in fighting unemployment, indicating that low unemployment often masks tricks that distribute work among more part-time employees.

Employability within the Bologna Process
Employability was one of the core objectives of the Sorbonne Declaration in 1998, with the creation of a European Higher Education Area being seen as a way of promoting the mobility and employability of citizens. In the Sorbonne Declaration, employability was also identified as one of the positive outcomes of having set comparable degrees across a European Area of education (1998). Employability has remained in the Bologna Process during the following years in several communiqués (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Education 2001, 2007, 2009, 2012), and implicitly through the use of the transparency tools created, also for enhancing a better employability (e.g. the Diploma Supplement).

Qualifications Frameworks
One major development that has the capacity to improve the graduate employability is the development of qualifications frameworks. By creating a set of comparable frameworks across Europe, employers can have a better and clearer image of higher education, but of course, it is vital that public administrations and higher education institutions inform the wider public on the impor­tance of the frameworks and their potential use. In the long run, the use of newly de­veloped Bologna transparency tools has the capacity to ensure that all learning outcomes students attain during their studies can be recognised for employment purposes. This will help stop situations in which the confusing name of a programme can hinder the employability prospects of a graduate, for instance.

National qualifications frameworks facilitate access from Vocational Edu­cation and Training and other forms of education to higher education and vice-versa creating a smoother permeability between both sectors. At the same time, students of Europe agree that further implementation and development of student learning outcomes, as well as assessment methods and criteria is vital for the enhancement of employability and the paradigm shift toward stu­dent-centred learning. In order to further implement and improve the student-centred system, it is crucial to look into the implementation of ECTS, estimation of workload and formulation of learning outcomes.

Diploma Supplement and Recognition
One of the most important Bologna tools in fostering greater employability, and es­pecially transnational employability, is the recognition of qualifications and short-du­ration cross-border studies. This recognition extends the employment opportunities available to students and graduates by offering them access to a pan-European labour market. The Lisbon Recognition Convention set out the basic prin­ciples behind the process of recognition. Thus far, all the Bologna signatories except Greece ratified it.

There are numerous tools and political initiatives emerging from the Bologna Process that have been to a great degree, been oriented toward improving the communication with the wider society. The Diploma Supplement is aimed at better describing the exact learning achievements of students that undergo a cer­tain program. Still, there is little evidence that the tool has been taken up by employers as a simpler method to evaluate students’ learning experiences.

Recognition of prior-learning (RPL)
RPL, whether acquired through formal, informal or non-formal education, promotes flexible access routes and learning pathways in higher education. When it comes to the transition to working life, recognising the skills one has acquired outside of formal education, provides one with more experience to begin with and an ever more diverse set of competences. The right to have one’s skills recognised, regardless of the context in which they were acquired, would likely affect students’ choice and length of study, motivation to study, as well as completion rates of different learners.

Social Dimension
Education improves employment (GRAPH)
This comparison seems to point to a result that vindicates the impact of a university education on the chances that a person has to gain a employment. In 2012, the then EU-27, less than six percent of people with a higher education degree were unemployed. The gap was quite wide when compared with graduates of secondary education and with those of primary education only, which had by far the highest rate of unemployment. The results appear clear-cut: the more educated a person is, the greater chances one has of being employed. Thus, access to higher education has been one of the best tools in terms of breaking cycles of poverty, and part of the reason for this is the fact that it offers still greater employment opportunities than lower levels of education (Attewell, et.al. 2007).

Skills
High unemployment levels have brought attention to the qualities higher education graduates have, or do not have. Furthermore, the forecast that by 2020, 20% more jobs will require higher level skills has turned attention also to concerns of skills mismatch, where the supply of graduates does not match the demands of the labour market, and employers are considering a number of graduates “overqualified”.

Right set of skills and needs
The latest European-level document to discuss the topic of skills is in the European Commission communication “Rethinking Education: Investing in skills for better socio-economic outcomes”. The communication states that, “Investment in education and training for skills development is essential to boost growth and competitiveness, skills determine Europe’s capacity to increase produc­tivity and that, in the long-term skills can trigger innovation and growth, move pro­duction up the value chain, stimulate the concentration of higher level skills in the EU and shape the future labour market” (European Commission 2012).
Mismatch

However, it is not always about the lack of demand. “In 2010 and 2011, high unemployment lev­els co-existed with increased difficulties in filling vacancies” (European Commission 2011). This situation was generated by the mismatches in the labour market, which can be due to inadequate skills, limited geo­graphic mobility and inadequate wage conditions. Therefore it is important to note which factors influence the mismatches while discussing skills and the mismatch ex­isting today.

Skills mismatch is created by a number of components. It is the outcome of the com­plex interplay between the supply and demand of skills within a market economy, both of which are constantly affected by adjustment lags and market failures and are shaped by the contextual conditions prevailing (e.g. demographics, technological progress, institutional settings) (European Commission 2012).

Mismatches can also be created by the lack of flexibility in education and training systems, for instance due to slowness or unwillingness of educational institutions to respond to labour market signals, inadequate student guidance, insufficient validation of non-formal and informal learning and inadequate continuing training at company and sector level. It is generally believed that the mismatch has increased as an outcome of the crisis, when in reality the mismatch has remained quite stable, at around 20% between 2000 and 2010, despite the growing participation rates and massification of higher education. This suggests that over-qualification rates are influenced more by labour market structures and the lack of innovation in business and industry than by the growing number of students.

Hence the forecasting of skills and reforming higher education according to the needs of the labour market and skills predictions should be carefully rethought. According to CEDEFOP, temporary, over-education is not necessarily a problem (2012). Better-qualified people have a better chance of keeping a job and, once in employment, they may be more innovative and change the nature of the job they are doing. Highly skilled people may also find it easier to transfer skills gained in one sector to a job in another. The OECD study in adults’ skills suggests that the higher the level of education is, the higher the level of skills is (2013). In return, this enhances one’s level of trust in others, political efficacy or the sense of influence on the political process, participation in associative, religious, political or charity activities (volunteering) and self-assessed health status.

Based on these findings, it can be concluded that generally speaking, obtaining a higher education degree is to the benefit of the individual, society and labour market. Rather than looking at the exact numbers of graduates in each field, the focus should be on the type of skills, or competences, that enhance the opportunities for finding work, regardless of the study field or background.

The labour market is not static and the “right” skills change over time and in different places (CEDEFOP 2012). While the demand for a specific set of skills is linked closely to the changes that happen in the economy, the supply of skills is driven by different economic and social incentives and choices made by schools, students and even their parents. When there are highly skilled workers available, companies are encouraged and enabled to adopt new technologies and ways of working. The OECD notes that better cognitive and interpersonal skills are going to be required more in the future, but making more detailed projections at the occupational or industrial level are dif­ficult. Projections can be used to provide additional information, but shouldn’t be used for detailed manpower planning (OECD 2012).

However, it is important to note when discussing developing labour markets that jobs that are good for national or regional development are not the same everywhere, as is noted by the World Bank (2012). For this reason, one cannot take for example, the European level skills forecasts as a given and apply them in every country. Although they provide a general picture of the direction Europe is heading, countries and regions in Europe are arguably in different situations when it comes to the structure of their economies and the needs of their labour markets.

Students’ perspective
Planning studies
Personal study planning refers to long-term planning of the studies. Typically it in­cludes planning of the content, extent and duration of the studies. It takes into ac­count how and when the student plans on completing certain parts of the studies, whether they would like to participate in a mobility period, and what may affect the com­pletion of their studies. The skills students gain are the same as the competences or learn­ing outcomes, which is all a part of what one wishes to acquire over their study time. Hence personal study planning is needs to be taken into account when discussing how learning outcomes and students’ aspirations can and will be met, as well as the acquisition of skills.

No uniform way of conducting study plan­ning takes place, and it is understood in various ways. Whether one is required to plan for the whole duration of their studies or only at the time of choosing electives, are two very different matters. The link between the planning of one’s own studies and the successful completion of studies should be researched in order to know the real effect such a method could have on the completion of studies. It could be assumed that when one has the option to choose and plan the conduct of their studies and is required to reflect on the choices they have, one’s motivation increases as a result.

Being able to plan and choose one’s own curricula, studies and in the end, learning outcomes will influence and improve the preparation of graduates towards employability as acquisition of skills can be enhanced.

Cooperation with stakeholders

Recognition

In order to grasp employability in all its meanings, it is necessary to be reminded about the diversity of the types of higher education institutions and programmes, complex and changing labour markets and diverse needs of graduates and employers, and hold on to them. The European Higher Education Area has been promoting cooperation and open discussion with different stakeholders on higher education reforms, in order to facilitate harmonisation of diverse educational systems. Cooperation between institutions, graduates, students, teachers, governments, employers, organisations and other sectors of education (i.e. primary, general secondary, VET, adult education) must take place when discussing and making decisions about the enhancement of employability. Employability is a dynamic process influenced by the versatility of factors that come from inside and outside of education, thus “if any of the stakeholders is sic. left out, the complexity of the issue will not be fully addressed and some problems may be overlooked (i.e. readability of qualifications by employers)” (Vukasović 2006).

Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship should be seen as an additional method to develop students’ transversal skills, and not simply as a solution to graduate unemployment. ESU believes that entrepreneurship should not be a mandatory part of all curricula. However, entrepreneurial studies should be provided upon the student's request. Graduates should be provided with financial support and incentives in order to improve conditions for start-ups (ESU 2014).

3. Conclusions and considerations for the future

Narrow definitions of employability that focus on short term goals, individual benefits and education as a private good undermine the key role that higher education plays in the democratic development of the society. Misconceptions of employability hinder the development of academic values in higher education and are a threat because they encourage increased commodification and privatisation within the system. These two concepts are quite similar and both of them refer to the instrumentalisation and the changing perception of education as purely an economic factor and a resource for prosperity.

The consequences of these threats are elitist approaches to higher education, reflecting in cuts to the national budgets for education, the introduction of tuition fees and limited access to higher education (Frederiksen & Vuksanović 2013). When budget cuts pressure higher education institutions to perform more with less, they must then justify the different purposes that they serve. Whether that is training people for active citizenship, facilitating social mobility, improving skills needed in the labour market or conducting high-quality research, these activities are weighted against one another in a competition for funds and in creating a more efficient education system (Moisander 2013). One cannot help but wonder about the true efficiency of such educational system, its sustainability and ability to serve multiple, concomitant purposes.

Employability is also about making graduates more likely to gain employment in their chosen field(s), facilitating their ability to create/start new businesses and their ability to develop and succeed in their occupations. Employability cannot be fixed in a one-time effort, but must be constantly enhanced and adapted to the needs of the society.

Employability does not mean matching educational and labour markets, companies defining contents and teaching methods, training in the routines of everyday work nor pure work experience. Employable higher education graduates have a qualification with knowledge of the theories and methods of their disciplines, the ability to apply their knowledge on the job in order to assess and solve problems and develop new qualifications, have acquired relevant soft skills and the ability to recognise their own training needs (ESU 2014).

4. Recommendations

Higher education is about employability, not employment

Employability should always be defined in a broad sense, taking into account factors from inside and outside of higher education. The difference between employability, the ability to learn and ability to gain employment, and employment, the actual acquisition of a job, should always be kept in mind in decision-making processes.

Higher education should not be designed to directly match labor market needs

Higher education should rather be tailored according to the needs of the society as a whole and recognise and keep in mind the complexity and diversity of educational programmes, disciplines and professions when discussing enhancement of employability of graduates.

Access to higher education is essential for improving employability

The link between employability and social dimension should be strengthened by opening and improving access to higher education for students and learners coming from underrepresented groups.

Automatic recognition must be implemented for countries that have the Bologna structural reforms in place
Automatic recognition of academic, comparable degrees should be fully endorsed, however, not at the expense of autonomy of higher education institutions. Also, recognition of Prior Learning and Student Portfolio System should be fully endorsed by the institutions which should also not abandon the development of general skills.

Take into account students’ expectations toward their studies

Countries must develop mechanisms that ask for students’ expectations toward their studies in order to improve success and knowledge of the disciplines and programs of the studies for current and prospective students.
Cooperation between higher education stakeholders and society in institutions can be useful for the enhancement of employability, but must be approached with care

Stakeholders can contribute with important knowledge and participate in discussions about the design and delivery of higher education programs, but the decision-making power must always rest with institutions.
Educational quality or success of higher education institutions should not be measured in terms of employment.
For the overarching policy targets on social dimension, lifelong learning, and employability, clear and concrete indicators should be developed and tied to the national targets. Data collection and analysis must be improved on the European level, including independent alternatives to the current stock-taking exercise, which is far too dependent on governments’ own perceptions.

Improve communication and guidance on higher education and the EHEA

While the structure of higher education systems is being reformed, little is being done to make it comprehensible to the wider public, especially students and employers. It is crucial for ministers to commit to establishing credible and easy to use guidance systems for different actors in higher education and to communicate what the EHEA is about.

5. References
Attewell, P., Lavin, D., Domina, T., Levey, T. (2007). “Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations?”. New York: Russell Sage.

CEDEFOP (2012). Briefing Note. Europe’s Skill Challenge. Lagging Skill Demand Increases Risks of Skill Mismatch.(external link)

Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2001). Towards the European Higher Education Area. Communiqué of the Conference of Ministers responsible for Higher Education in Prague on May 19, 2001.

Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2007). London Communiqué.
Towards the European Higher Education Area: Responding to Challenges in a Globalized World.

Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2009). The Bologna Process 2020—The European Higher Education Area in the New Decade. Communiqué of the Conference of European Ministers Responsible for Higher Education, Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve, 28–29 April 2009.

Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2012). Making the Most of Our Potential: Consolidating the European Higher Education Area. Bucharest Communiqué.European Commission (2011). “Youth Opportunities Initiative”. COM(2011) 933 final.(external link)

European Commission (2012). “Rethinking Education: Investing in Skills for Better Socio-Economic Outcomes”.COM(2012) 669 final.(external link)

European Higher Education Area (EHEA) (2009). “Working Group on Employability.Report to Ministers Bologna Conference Leuven/Louvain-La-Neuve 28-29 April 2009”.(external link)

European Students’ Union (ESU) (2014). “Policy Paper on Quality of Higher Education”.(external link)

Frederiksen, M.T., Vuksanović, N. (2013). “Graduate Employability and the Social Good”. University World News, issue: 280.(external link)

Lénárt E., Sanchez I., Gáspár M., Frederiksen M., Skadborg M., Vuksanović N., Moisander T., Taskila V. (2015). “Student Advancement of Graduates Employability: Student Handbook on Employability”. The European Students’ Union: Brussels.(external link)

Moisander, T. (2013). “Graduate Unemployment—Whose Fault is it?” University World News, issue 268.(external link)

OECD (2012). Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Lives: A Strategic Approach to Skills Policies, OECD Publishing.(external link)

OECD (2013). OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Publishing.(external link)

World Bank (2012). World Development Report 2013: Jobs. Washington DC: World Bank.(external link)

Vukasović, M. (2006). “Deconstructing and Reconstructing Employability”. In Froment, E., Kohler, J., Purser, L., Wilson, L. (eds.), EUA Bologna handbook: making Bologna work. Vol. 4 (B 1.4-2, 1–33). Berlin, Stuttgart: Dr Josef Raabe Verlags gmbh.

Vuksanović N., Santa R., Moisander T., Taskila V. and Leen E. (2015).
“Student advancement of graduates employability: Employability With Students' Eyes”