Employers think beyond the conventional skills discourse – so why can’t the government?

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Audrey Songhurst, former Director of the Research and Enterprise Development Centre at Canterbury Christ Church Universitywhere she was awarded her doctorate in Education in 2018.

It is not surprising that higher education is looked upon to play a role in driving economic growth by ensuring graduates have the appropriate skills for the workforce – assuming there can be some common understanding of what employability skills and the needs of the workforce are.  It is surprising that the many other facets of higher education that are worthy of consideration and inclusion, in terms of human flourishing, have scant mention within the dominant political discourse. 

Some laudable aspirations for higher education were advocated by the now defunct Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), namely: 

  • to inspire and enable individuals to develop their capabilities to the highest potential levels throughout life, so that they grow intellectually, are well-equipped for work, can contribute effectively to society and achieve personal fulfilment 
  • to increase knowledge and understanding for their own sake and to foster their application to the benefit of the economy and society 
  • to serve the needs of an adaptable, sustainable, knowledge-based economy at local, regional and national levels 
  • to play a major role in shaping a democratic, civilised, inclusive society 

Lord Robbins, in his 1963 government commissioned Report into Higher Education, recommended similarly holistic principles and asserted that, ‘the good society deserves equality of opportunity for its citizens to become not merely good producers but also good men and women.’  Research shows that employers, too, think beyond the conventional skills discourse and believe that ‘personal ethical qualities of honesty, integrity and trust are expected on appointment, ahead of any other skill or competence.’ (Hinchcliffe and Jolly, 2011).  This view has not changed over the years, as evidenced by the latest CBI/Pearson Skills Survey Report (2019) which states that: 

‘…wider character, behaviours and attributes are considered to be the most important consideration when recruiting school, college and university leavers [and] when it comes to university graduate recruitment, businesses are looking above all at the qualities of the individual.’

Yet, despite their perceived value, these aspects – along with their recognised value to the individual, employers and society more widely – enjoy neither the recognition nor privileged position accorded to ‘economically valuable skills.’ (Leitch, 2006).  While David Willetts’ asserts that:

‘Going to university is more beneficial for your health than a five-a-day-diet.  [However], while the evidence of the benefits of higher education is as compelling as for a healthy diet it is harder to communicate and get it accepted.’ (A University Education, 2017).

This perceived difficulty, coupled with the absence of a sectoral counter-narrative, permits the prevailing employability and skills discourse to promulgate a skills-defined representation of the individual, wherein graduates are seen predominantly as vessels for injecting skills into the economy.  This narrow, skills-driven model of higher education is essentially transactional in nature and homogeneous in design and ignores not only labour market realities but also what Edward Said referred to as the ‘complicating humanity’ that underpins any human enterprise.   The one-dimensional and reductive political narrative focuses on the financial return on investment that education can bring to the economy and the individual, at the expense of the broader benefits implicit in the idea of human flourishing.  

The powerful and persuasive rhetoric that is driving the employability and skills narrative is fuelled by the Government’s need to realise its economic policies and aspirations. Yet, the rhetoricians could just as easily utilise their influence and rhetorical prowess to advocate and lobby for the human flourishing elements of higher education as they do for the ‘economically valuable skills’ argument.  There are three primary reasons why this has not happened:

1. There has been a determined political push, in the face of ever increasing participation in higher education, to expand vocational education. The prioritisation and positive publicity being accorded to apprenticeships by the government is in stark contrast to negative depictions of universities.  This is reinforced by David Willetts’ view, captured in a Times Higher Education article in November 2017, that: ‘not many people say that they love universities at the moment’ 

2. There has been an increasing dominance of quantitative metrics, situated within the context of a financial return-on-investment and economic growth narrative. It is very difficult to capture and communicate the broader benefits of higher education when the dominant discourse and related metrics are almost completely geared toward results that can be quantified and empirically evidenced, usually in the short-term. 

3. There is neither the inclination nor the method for recognising or capturing the qualitative benefits of higher education. This is evidenced by the New Economics Foundation, who asserted that:

‘…marginalization of the broader outcomes from HE stem from difficulties in measurement and  monetary valuation and typifies the common focus on economic rather than social and environmental outcomes that are just as important for building a well-functioning and happy society.’ (2011)

Consequently, any meaningful discussion about broader benefits and outcomes has been effectively shut down. 


Lord Robbins and Lord Dearing (1997) in their respective government commissioned reports on higher education, showed that it is possible to advocate certain viewpoints and suggest certain actions in a way that does not compromise a holistic vision for higher education.  These reports demonstrate, and advocate, an understanding of the value of higher education – in the broadest possible sense – to humanity, not just to a particular segment of it.  This awareness and understanding is not visible in the dominant, one-dimensional and reductive political discourse.

If we accept the argument, posited by Professor David Carr, that ‘forms of knowledge, understanding or skill are more constitutive features of personhood than contingent or disposable commodities of individual and social consumerism’, then we can begin to move away from a discourse that depicts human flourishing predominantly in terms of wealth generation, towards a narrative that situates the person and moral purpose at the centre of conceptions of education.

Until then, higher education will continue to be regulated in accordance with a narrative of ‘economically valuable skills’, rather than with any philosophically or morally enlightened view about the fundamental purpose of education. 


Carr, D, (2003a) Making Sense of Education, p12, London: Routledge Falmer. 

CBI/Pearson, (2019), Education and Skills Survey Report: Education and learning for the modern world, P23.  https://www.cbi.org.uk/media/3841/12546_tess_2019.pdf

Dearing, R (1997) The Dearing Report: Higher Education in the Learning Society,


Higher Education Funding Council for England (2008) HEFCE Strategic Plan 2006-11

Hinchcliffe, G, Jolly, A (2011) Graduate Identity and employability, British Educational Research Journal, Vol 37 (4) 563-584.

Leitch, Lord A (2006) Prosperity for all in the global economy – world class skills, P44. London: The Stationery Office.


New Economics Foundation (2011), Degrees of Value: How Universities Benefit Society. London: NEF

Robbins, L, (1963), The Robbins Report: Higher Education, p7


Said, E, ([1978], 2003), Orientalism, p150. London: Penguin Classics.

Willetts, D, (2017,) A University Education¸ p146.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Willetts, D (2017b) ‘It is clear that university expansion changes lives for the better.’ Times Higher Education, 23 November [Online].