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Becoming ‘employable’ students and ‘ideal’ future workers in an age of austerity: Student employability practices and higher education inequalities - KIm Allen
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Becoming ‘employable’ students and ‘ideal’ future workers in an age of austerity: Student employability practices and higher education inequalities - KIm Allen


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Presentation at the HEA-funded workshop 'Rendering explicit the implicit: Promoting and balancing effective learning and employability within the undergraduate curriculum'. …

Presentation at the HEA-funded workshop 'Rendering explicit the implicit: Promoting and balancing effective learning and employability within the undergraduate curriculum'.

The workshop aimed to act as a conduit for the dissemination of relevant research, good practice and innovation in (1) sociology students’ understandings of their employability and the implications for higher education policy and practice (2) how to balance both effective learning and employability within the undergraduate sociology curriculum.

This presentation is part of a related blog post that provides an overview of the event:

For further details of the HEA's work on employability and global citizenship in the Social Sciences, please see:

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  • 1. Dr Kim Allen (Manchester Metropolitan University) Wednesday 26 March 2014
  • 2. • Draw on small-scale qualitative research on equality issues in HE work placements in the arts and creative sector • Critical intervention into the Employability agenda: – Presence of classed and gendered inequalities in access to work placements, internships etc – Disrupt common-sense ideas that ‘success’ in employability/ graduate transitions is simply about individual effort, motivation etc • Consider what Sociology can offer students in ‘thinking differently’ about employability
  • 3. Context: the employability imperative • Employability as ‘KPI’ • Yet…unstable education-to-labour market transitions, fall in graduate positions and rise in un/der-employment • Concern about differential employment rates across disciplines – Sociology as a discipline with less obvious/ direct vocational alignment, accused of ‘wooliness’ • Conflicting information on how well Sociology graduates fare in the labour market • HEA, strategic priority for 2013-14 is ‘Employability in the
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  • 5. •Who can take up the kinds of practices now required of students to make themselves ‘marketable’ ? •Who can ‘play the game’ ? •Which students are more likely to succeed? But….Who can ‘play the game’
  • 6. •Students compelled to become ‘resourceful’, use their initiative, be creative and show a willingness to “work unpaid’ (Ball, Pollard, & Stanley 2010, 11) •‘Resourceful’ or ‘Resource-Full’? Access to, and success in, employability practices depends on the availability of capitals (economic, cultural, social cf. Bourdieu) which are unevenly distributed and embodied. . Thinking differently about employability
  • 7. The Study • Equality Challenge Unit. (with Jocey Quinn, Sumi Hollingworth, Anthea Rose) • Arts and Creative Industries (closed industries; lack of socio- economic, gender and racial diversity; predominance of informal recruitment) • Equality groups: disabled students; black and minority ethnic students ; students seeking to enter a labour market sector where there are significant gender imbalances; working class students. • Case studies of 5 HEIs in England and Wales; in-depth interviews with • 26 under and post-graduation students who had undertaken work placements
  • 8. Students negotiating the employability imperative Key themes
  • 9. “You have to drive your career” They [the college] suggest that you get work experience...You have to make contact and you have to get out there. Doing a work placement isn’t compulsory. It’s just a strong suggestion. You won't fail the course but you probably will fail your career if you don't. (Ed, BME, male, middle class, Broadcast Media) It’s a mixture of expected and encouraged. … if you had 3 months spare time and you didn't go and make a film or get involved in a production company or something. …they would question why you were bothering to come back the next year. (Bel, female, middle class, Media)
  • 10. Cultivating students as active, self- motivated enterprising agents Well [it’s] absolutely our philosophy that if we give them something now then they won’t know what to do when there isn’t anybody to give it to them later so we’d much prefer to make them understand why it’s important and to teach them the skills they need to get it (Placement officer) You have to drive your career… I have taken control of my own career path in that way and so the fact that my placement wasn't organised for me...could only be an advantage really. (Lisa, female, middle class, Architecture) It’s about having all the qualities that you would be motivated… attitude, attitude, attitude. (Employer)
  • 11. The ideal student/ future worker as ‘resource-full’ • Networks : ‘You’re more likely to get a job if you know someone in that sector … it’s very undermining’ (Nikki, Working class, white, Design). • ‘Selling yourself’: I bombarded them for 9 months... it took I think quite a long time to get back to me and then for me to really persuade him that you know, I’m going to do it, that I can be a really hard worker (Alena, BME international, female, working class, Fashion) • Unpaid placements: ‘They could have at least paid for transport, but there was nothing… If I didn’t have [part-time] work, then I don’t think I would have managed … I don’t have the time or the energy to do [another] placement, work and study as well, it’s just too much’ (Carlo, black working class, Fashion) It wasn't paid. I think it just shows a bit of commitment really. (Jane,
  • 12. Long hours as a ‘badge of honour’: “If you cant take the heat....” There will be almost certainly an element of evenings and weekend working but … I can’t candy coat it, that’s what it’s like and you’ll find it everywhere. And most people… are happy to do that … it ain't 9 to 5....That’s a reality. It’s a bit like if you’re a fireman well I don’t like heat and smoke well tough that’s what it’s like. (Sole Employer, Designer)   The hours were supposed to be 9am to 6pm. But you feel like you can’t be seen walking away from your desk or leaving early. Sometimes I didn’t go for lunch. …You have to look utterly 100 per cent committed otherwise you’re out. (Mel, white working class, Design)
  • 13. Living with inequalities: Bodies out of place “Social spaces are not blank and open for anybody to occupy....while all can, in theory, enter, it is certain types of bodies that are tacitly designated as being the ‘natural’ occupants.... …Some bodies have the right to belong in certain locations while others are marked out as trespassers who are, in accordance with how both spaces and bodies are imagined, circumscribed as being ‘out of place’” (Puwar, 2004: 8).
  • 14. Mel – ‘a fish out of water’ I didn’t really enjoy it to be honest. It was like... the feelings I got from people didn’t settle me.... You feel that you’re lower than them… Oh God like it’s funny, the [agency director’s] mum used to phone every lunchtime, “is Rupert there?” or whatever his name was. It was those kinds of names.... it was even the way they talked. You know like really ‘proper’; obviously you should talk properly and all that but it just throws you off a little bit when you arrive. [It’s like] you’ve not got enough money and the [people you work with] have a totally different lifestyle… you know like the vibes you get off people….. ….For me it’s hard with my dad calling me a snob and then the other end where you’ve not got enough money and [the designers]
  • 15. Conclusion? Questions? Critical spaces and possibilities: Breaking the silence – The place of sociological critique: ‘I guess I just didn’t have tough enough skin…You realise where you fit in and where you don’t...which is why I’m going to look in different places’. (Mel) ‘[Inequality] it’s a topic that people don’t talk about. Discrimination… its like ‘ah I cant believe you used that word!’....’ (Faheem) Acts of naming need force behind them, they must be ‘taken strategically and with the support of advocates who carry weight’ (Puwar, 2004, p.155). Sociology uniquely placed to think differently about employability
  • 16. The power of sociological thought -Sociology invites students to lead an ‘attentive’ and ‘examinant life’ (Back, 2008) concerned with power, privilege and inequality -Sociology values and encourages collective political action “The Sociological Imagination is the most fruitful form of this self-consciousness…Perhaps the most fruitful distinction with which the sociological imagination works is between 'the personal troubles of milieu' and 'the public issues of social structure’….The promise of the Sociological Imagination is a vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society (C. Wright Mills, 1959)