Graduate employability and the social good

Employability has to be regarded as a concept that is outside of the economic growth bubble. Higher education should not be steered by the labour market, but by the needs of society. Higher education is a human right and, as such, it must be available to everyone.

The European Students’ Union, or ESU, recommends that our whole society come together with regard to higher education development. There is not only one organisation responsible for the global development of higher education. ESU sees the development of higher education as a puzzle that will be completed only when everyone gives their best, impartial contributions.


Current trends in higher education have opened up a debate on the future of higher education, which should be based on a deep discussion of the values and priorities of the society we live in.

In order to reach consensus and an objective view, it is immensely important to focus on cooperation among all actors instead of debates on who is competent to speak about higher education and who is not.

ESU believes that higher education is a public good and a public responsibility. Therefore everyone needs to have a say in what kind of society they want to build and what kind of higher education they want to acquire.

Students and student representatives are core actors in higher education and contribute significantly to reforms at the local, national and international levels.

At the European level, ESU brings together 13.5 million students, represented by 47 national unions of students from 39 countries. These students bring forth policies and projects and decide on future steps in the development of higher education.

Student Advancement of Graduates’ Employability, or SAGE, is one of ESU’s projects, contributing to the development of policies on employability and advocating independent research and the development of teaching and learning in higher education.

Through the research activities of the project, one of them a survey, a study on graduate employability in Europe will be published in the autumn of 2013. This study makes a clear distinction between employability and employment.

Employability is defined as a learning process, a graduate’s achievement and potential to acquire a job, making sure that the concept is not confused with the actual acquisition of a job – although the concept and the environment are highly interdependent.

What does employability mean?

First mentioned in the Sorbonne Declaration in 1998, employability was one of the key ideas behind a harmonised European higher education system. However, the definition of employability has changed over time.

In the Bologna Declaration (19 June 1999), employability was referred to as ‘citizens’ employability’, while in the Prague Communiqué (19 May 2001) it was clarified as ‘graduate employability’.

Today, different actors in the higher education field apply various understandings to the term, which has created misunderstandings and confusion in an education system that has been weakened by political discourse.

“Employability derives from complex learning, and is a concept of a wider range than those ‘core’ and ‘key’ skills,” writes Mantz Yorke in Learning & Employability, Series One. It is about values, not only value-added. Also, employability is not only an attribute of a new graduate. “It needs to be continuously refreshed throughout a person’s working life,” he argues.

It is important to remember that employability and the social dimension are strongly interlinked, meaning that students will develop it in ways that reflect their particular circumstances.

In order to create an education system that successfully reflects the society we live in, we need to go back to basics and recognise that higher education serves multiple purposes, as suggested and agreed by the Council of Europe’s member states:
  • • Preparation for the labour market.
  • • Preparation for active citizenship in democratic societies.
  • • Personal development.
  • • Developing and maintaining a broad, advanced knowledge base.
Threats and consequences

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 society.

Misconceptions about 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 latter two concepts are quite similar and both of them show the instrumentalisation and changing perception of education – its transformation into a purely economic factor and a resource for prosperity.

Commodification refers to the increasingly commercialised way in which higher education is being dealt with, while privatisation refers to a tendency of higher education institutions to take on operational norms associated with private enterprises.

The consequences of these threats are an elitist approach to higher education, reflected in cuts to national education budgets, the introduction of tuition fees, and more limited access to higher education. Students are also turned into consumers or sometimes even a product.

Students are not users of the system, nor are they consumers. They are active partners who contribute to the reform and development of higher education with their knowledge, experience and expertise.

Moreover, together with other partners they create the common ground for discussions and encourage an objective approach to higher education as a tool for social development.

* Michael Tolentino Frederiksen and Nevena Vuksanovic are members of the executive committee of the European Students’ Union.