Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Making Philosophers Employable - Reflections on Philosophy and Employability

In the following two blog posts, Ruth Oswald Wareham (Doctoral Researcher and Student Engagement Facilitator in The School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion) considers what can be done to enhance the employability of philosophy graduates and wonders whether the answer might involve philosophising about employability.

In recent years, the employability agenda has become one of the most prevalent in framing discussions about the efficacy of universities. Traditionally, academics have been loath to accept this shift towards what they regard as crude instrumentalism and which implies that the function of university is to produce work-ready individuals who will “meet the needs of business.” (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2012).

While David Willets has claimed that: “Our universities are centres of critical inquiry and free-thinking; they instil civic values in their students; and they extend understanding through teaching and research,” (BIS, 2012, p.3),  there is concern that the value of learning ‘for its own sake’ is being gradually eroded in favour of narrowly conceived market values.

The literary critic and academic Stefan Collini calls this pattern of debate “the conflict between the ‘useful’ and the ‘useless’”(Collini, 2012, p.39); a conflict which has, in one way, shape or form, existed in debates about the purpose of university since the early nineteenth century. Collini recommends that we recast the difference between academic inquiry and the more utilitarian thinking exhibited in current political discourse about the purpose of the university as one which arises out of a disparity between the idea that learning should be for a specific (pre-determined) purpose and the academic “drive towards understanding [which] can never accept an arbitrary stopping point, and [through which] critique may always in principle reveal that any currently accepted stopping-point is ultimately arbitrary.” (Collini, 2012, p.55)

With this in mind, perhaps it is time to withdraw from the useful/useless debate in terms of employability and begin to examine new ways in which to engage with the subject. In these blog posts, I intend to discuss what I envisage could be the way forward in terms of education for employability with particular relation to the study of  philosophy.

Philosophy & Employability – What Are You Going to Do With That?

When you study philosophy, you get used to derisory comments. The response to telling someone you are studying philosophy is usually something akin to: “What are you going to do with that then?” (although it is worth noting that I was once asked if this meant that I could read minds!). Philosophy graduates have a reputation for being less employable than graduates of STEM subjects. Indeed, even the students themselves have a fairly negative perception of their employability; only 42.5 per cent of students holding degrees in history & philosophical studies agreed with the statement 'The undergraduate subject I studied has been an advantage in looking for employment.' (Telegraph, 2012a). It is peculiar then, that according to recent data from HESA, graduates with degrees in history & philosophical studies actually do better than graduates of business, physics, architecture and computer science in terms of graduate employment. (Telegraph, 2012b)

Of course, the negative perception of philosophy is nothing new, in a discussion with Socrates, Adeimantus voices the concern that “the effect of [the] pursuit… even on those of its practitioners who are supposed to be particularly good is that they become incapable of performing any service to their communities.” (Plato, 1998, p.208) Socrates responds that the problem is not the uselessness of philosophers but “others’ failure to make use of them.” (ibid. p.209) Failing the complete overhaul of society in a manner reflective of Republic, what can be done to enhance (and improve perceptions of) the employability of philosophy graduates?

 Employability – Towards a Philosophical Perspective

Employability is about far more than securing a ‘graduate job’ after leaving university and is more properly defined as:

A set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that makes graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy. (ESECT based on Yorke 2006)

On this definition, it seems plausible to argue that the best way to make philosophers employable is to encourage them to articulate the skills they've developed. According to an employability guide for students and graduates:

There are plenty of career opportunities for philosophy graduates, but often in roles that bear no obvious relation to the study of philosophy, so you need to be able to demonstrate sound personal transferable skills, which employers value…think about the general skills you are developing, like the ability to think logically, analyse critically, and communicate articulately and accurately, both orally and in writing. You’re also learning reasoning skills and the ability to formulate and address problems creatively. (HEAPRS, 2009)

However,  we need to be wary of adopting the overly narrow perspective of ‘transferrable skills’ because it carries the implication that certain skills can be picked up through the study of any discipline and entails the devaluation of particularity. Surely what we really want to know is: ‘What is special about philosophy?’

One answer may come from work on philosophy for children (P4C). From the point of view of skills development in children, participation in philosophical enquiry has been found to significantly enhance cognitive ability, reasoning skills and social skills (Trickey,2007; Trickey & Topping, 2004). However, it is not so much the subject matter of philosophy which appears to produce these educational gains, rather, it is the manner in which the subject matter is approached; through participation in a community of inquiry (Lipmann, 2003; Fisher 2003).

But while research on P4C serves the philosopher’s aim in terms of illustrating the benefits of studying the subject (at least when it is studied in a particular manner), this simply seems to buy into the useful/useless debate and thus amounts to an endorsement of the instrumentalist conception of a university education. Is there another way? In my 2nd post, I will examine one such possibility.


BIS (2012) Following Up the Wilson Review of Business-University Engagement

Collini, S (2012) What Are Universities For? London; Penguin

Fisher, R (2003) Teaching Thinking: Philosophical Enquiry in the Classroom (Second Edition), London; Continuum

Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Philosophical & Religious Studies(HEAPRS) (2009) http://prs.heacademy.ac.uk/publications/emp_guide_for_web.pdf

Lipman, M (2003) Thinking in Education (Second Edition), Cambridge; Cambridge University Press

Plato (1993) Republic Translated by Waterfield, R, Oxford; Oxford University Press

Trickey, S (2007) Promoting Social and Cognitive Development in Schools: An Evaluation of ‘Thinking Through Philosophy’ http://www.ep.liu.se/ecp/021/vol1/026/?ecp2107026.pdf

S. Trickey & K. J. Topping (2004): ‘Philosophy for children’: a systematic review, Research Papers in Education, 19:3, 365-380

The Daily Telegraph (2012a)

Yorke, M (2006) cited in Pegg, A, Waldock, J, Hendy-Isaac, S & Lawton, R (2012) Pedagogy for Employability, York; HEA

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