Education versus employability. A reply to Daniel James Țurcaș and others

Common sense: why don’t you practise your violin more? You are really talented.

Also common sense: why would you waste your time practising a musical instrument, if you can’t sustain a living from it?

***

Taken together, these two questions express everything that is wrong with our education system. The reason is that there are two largely disparate sets of values at work: while the first question expresses educational values, the second is driven by concerns of what now often goes under the heading of employability. While many European education systems pride themselves on fostering the first set, they ultimately honour the second set. The two questions jumped at me when trying to figure out what’s wrong with meritocratic hero narratives designed to empower first-generation students. In reply to my previous piece a number of people have pointed out that it’s basically a Good Thing to spread stories by first-generation academics, the reason being that it might ultimately allow for sharing struggles and rasing awareness. I agree that such stories might be empowering etc. but something keeps nagging me. So here it is:

Academic success as a student follows a different logic than success as an academic employee. Performing well as a student can be honoured by, by and large, academic standards. Even if studying is often competitive, students do not need to compete, because, at least in principle, grades, even good ones, are not a limited resource. By contrast, academic employment is strongly limited. Therefore, academics compete in a zero-sum game. Arguably, then, empowerment for first-gen students might work very well for student success, but it probably has nothing to offer when it comes to employment. My worry is that empowerment through first-gen stories might be taken as a recipe or empowerment for the job market, when in fact it mostly speaks to values that hold or should hold in educational contexts.

Here is what I wrote about these different sets of values two years ago: Most education systems hold a simple promise: If you work hard enough, you’ll get a good grade. While this is a problematic belief in itself, it is a feasible idea in principle. The real problem begins with the transition from education to employment relations in academia. If you have a well performing course, you can give all of your thirty students a high grade. But you can’t give thirty applicants for the same position the job you’ve advertised, even if all the applicants are equally brilliant. Now the problem in higher education is that the transition from educational rewards to employment rewards is often rather subtle. Accordingly, someone not getting a job might draw the same conclusion as someone not getting a good grade.

It is here that we are prone to fallacious reasoning and it is here that especially academic employers need to behave more responsibly: Telling people that “the best candidate” will get the job might too easily come across like telling your first-year students that the best people will get a top grade. But the job market is a zero sum game, while studying is not. (It might be that there is more than just one best candidate or it might be impossible for the employer to determine who the best candidate is.) So a competition among students is of a completely different kind than a competition between job candidates. But this fact is often obscured. An obvious indicator of this is that for PhD candidates it is often unclear whether they are employees or students. Yet, it strikes me as a category mistake to speak about (not) “deserving” a job in the same way as about deserving a certain grade or diploma. So while, at least in an ideal world, a bad grade is a reflection of the work you’ve done, not getting a job is not a reflection of the work you’ve done. There is no intrinsic relation between the latter two things. Now that doesn’t mean that (the prospect of doing) good work is not a condition for getting a job, it just means that there is no relation of being deserving or undeserving.

Or to put the same point somewhat differently, while not every performance deserves a good grade, everyone deserves a job.

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