I’m going to ask you a question and I want you to say the first three things that pop into your head.
Name three injustices in higher education.
That was easy enough, right? I’m guessing you mentioned problems like inequitable access to university, decolonising the curriculum or academic job precarity. There are tonnes to choose from, and it probably didn’t take too much mental effort to name a few.
Okay, onto Question 2.
Name three goals of higher education.
I don’t know about you, but I found that a damn-sight harder. My face pretty much alternated between a furrowed brow, raised eyebrow and a slightly pained smirk. Even if you’re a smarty-pants and came up with some answers, I’d be willing to bet you’re not super confident and can think of various ways to critique your ideas.
So, why do we find it harder to give decent answers to Question 2? I reckon part of this is caused by the shape of higher education research—we’ve done lots of important work on injustices, but we’re not as good at imagining alternative futures.
In this blog, I’m going to use the lens of graduate outcomes to think about the purposes of a post-pandemic university system and what the future could hold.
Where are we now?
Higher education policy around the world has often limited the purpose of a university education by adopting narrow economic conceptions of graduate outcomes, in particular employment status and salary. These narrow metrics feature prominently within national accountability mechanisms, such as the Teaching Excellence Framework in the UK, that attempt to create ‘value for money’ for students and the taxpayer. ‘Value’ in these contexts means little more than ‘individual economic benefits’.
However, it’s not just policy that prioritises economic graduate outcomes. In a recent scoping review, I found that the graduate outcome literature is disproportionately focussed on economic outcomes. Although some studies took a critical stance, perhaps assessing the employment outcomes of disadvantaged students, the overall literature tended to adopt this narrow economic framing.
At a time when the pandemic has prompted discussions about ‘value’—what is an essential job; and what important aspects of our lives have we taken for granted—there is an opportunity to assert a broader conception of the value of a university education. If we fail to do this, we risk narrow economic outcomes becoming further entrenched, as was seen in the UK Government’s ramping-up of discourse on ‘low-value’ courses, scrapping the 50% target for participation and detailing a restructuring regime that used these narrow outcomes.
Let’s turn to the future
Our future post-pandemic university system must be able to make a more compelling case about value. To enable this, we need to have more research, and more coordinated research, on graduate outcomes. This is especially important for non-economic outcomes.
But, as a first step, we need some shared sense of the concept ‘graduate outcome’.
Capability theory, as developed by Sen, Nussbaum and Walker, provides a very useful starting point. The theory arose as a critique of GDP as the sole way to judge economic success, and it’s easily repurposed to critique similarly narrow economic measurements of success in education. Capability theory argues that what is valuable is our capability and freedom to function in different areas of life. This includes our freedom to function in the economy, as well as other areas of life, such as in wider society or politics. This perspective could be applied to define a graduate outcome as some description of a graduate’s capability to function in the world, whether in the economy, society or politics.
The current literature on graduate outcomes is relatively siloed, with isolated sub-fields studying different capabilities; one sub-field looks at employment outcomes, another at the development of critical thinking and another at the creation of global citizens. If we want to better articulate the value of a university education, as well as resist the attempts to narrow this to an individual economic good, we need a more unified field of graduate outcomes that shares ideas and research on different capabilities. This unification would only be a starting point, and the new field would have to tackle difficult questions like:
- Which capabilities are the most important and relevant for our world?
- Does our higher education system require reform to achieve these outcomes?
Running with an idea
To end, let me outline one idea for a graduate outcome that could be particularly important in a post-pandemic university system. I’m calling this an emancipatory graduate outcome, or graduates’ capabilities to contribute to the transformation of oppressive structures. That needs some explanation…
Oppressive structures are those things that use a false belief to benefit one group over another. Take the example of university access. This relies on a false belief in a meritocracy—there are loads of studies that show the ways our education system operates in a way that gives some an advantage over others. Therefore, by continuing to assume a meritocracy, university admissions processes could be labelled ‘oppressive structures’ that require transformation.
An emancipatory graduate outcome argues that universities should prepare all graduates with a knowledge of these oppressive structures, and with the capabilities to contribute to their transformation. I gave the example of meritocracy in education, but this could also include oppressive structures in the economy, society and politics.
I’m still thinking this through during my PhD and welcome any input, critiques or thoughts!
If you agree with some of the ideas in this blog, but you’re a little sceptical of the large-scale reforms that might be needed to develop a university system that’s dedicated to achieving these goals, my question is: if not universities, then who?
Tom Fryer is a PhD researcher at University of Manchester. His PhD focusses on the ways to re-think our approach to graduate outcomes, with a specific focus on political and emancipatory goals. He is the author of free-to-access “Naff: Universities and how to change them”.