Marketing graduate employability: The language of employability in higher education
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In this chapter, we report on a study that focussed on a rarely acknowledged but important feature of massification: namely, the increasing pressure exerted on higher education institutions (HEIs) to market their courses to prospective students. Students invest considerable time and money in their higher education studies. Although most students select their program and major on the basis of interests and strengths, they expect their efforts to be rewarded with graduate-level paid work. Students’ expectations of this work are informed by their academic and personal self-efficacy, subjective norms, behavioural intentions, and their engagement with multiple communities of practice. Students are also influenced by institutional messaging, including that contained on university websites. Together with rapid changes in the nature of work, the increase in graduate numbers (e.g., almost 300% in Australia since 1990 and in the UK almost double since 1992) means that graduates are far more likely to transition into non-traditional forms of work and to take longer to become established (Challice, 2018; ONS, 2016). Despite this, little is known about how the process of employability development is foregrounded in the marketing materials of institutions or indeed, whether the employability narratives delivered to current and aspiring students are realised within the student experience. This dimension of future-capable graduates has also yet to be considered in relation to the rhetoric around access and participation. In the chapter, we investigate how employability discourse is communicated to external audiences, including prospective students, via institutional websites. We ask how this discourse compares with the narratives of the people tasked with employability development within those institutions. We build on Smith, Bell, Bennett and McAlpine’s 2018 Employability in a Global Context report by mining the data from qualitative interviews undertaken with academic and student support staff from eight institutions in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. We describe how the interviewees conceptualise employability within their institutions and in what ways they believe employability to impact the marketing narratives at their institutions. Using Holmes’ conceptions of employability as possessional, positional or processual, we then revisit Bennett, Knight, Kuchel, Divan, Horn, van Reyk and Burke da Silva’s (2017) study of how employability is portrayed on university websites to consider the presentation of employability on the websites of the same eight institutions. Using these two sources, we expose tensions in the representation of employability to internal and external audiences.
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