By Valerie Anderson
Issues of ‘learning gain’ increasingly arise from opinions and concerns about ‘value for money’ in higher education. In what some believe is an over-supplied graduate labour market, the discourse of employability also looms large as a feature of this discussion. In addition to expectations of a national ‘return on investment’ from HE, other stakeholders, such as students and their families, may have competing expectations of the value of HE. Parents and carers play an increasingly important role in financial and emotional support for students as they make the transition from school or college to HE. When establishing our OfS funded Learning Gain project, we recognised that the perspective of parents of newly enrolling undergraduate students had so far been absent from debates about learning gain.
To examine parents’ perspectives at the point at which students commence HE we invited parents attending university arrival or visit day events, at a ‘post-92’ university and a research-intensive university, to complete a blank A5 sized ‘postcard’ with a single question: “What do you hope your child will gain as a result of their time at university?” More than 100 parents responded.
The responses clearly express the value parents ascribe to the ‘time and space’ provided by a ‘university experience’. The postcards show how parents hope and expect University will ‘transform’ their children’s outlooks and life chances. In the words of one parent – “to realise his dreams and aspire to something that will bring him health, wealth and wisdom. He will be happy and love life”. This is a tall order!
Our analysis of the postcard responses highlights the dominance of the concept of ‘employability’ as the mechanism through which such happy outcomes will be achieved. From the viewpoint of parents, university should lead to a fulfilling career. However, importantly, they see personal, rather than academic, development as the basis of employability. Knowledge, qualifications and credentials are valued as a signal of eligibility for the graduate labour market, but parents understand ‘life experiences’ achieved at university as the basis of preparation for the ‘world of work’. The ‘currency’ of employability and occupational fulfilment, in the view of parents, is psychological confidence and resilience. Parents expect their children to learn through an interplay of experimentation and experience. They regard HE as an opportunity for exposure to new, transformative experiences that will challenge students’ cultural and social assumptions and leave them well placed – and well connected – to find occupational fulfilment and personal satisfaction.
From our analysis we drew three important conclusions. First, a direct link between HE and employability dominates parental views about the purpose of a university education in the UK. However, beyond the expectation of employability parents show very little interest in what educationalists might believe are the broader purposes of learning and scholarship as a feature of the university experience. Second, parents believe that employability requires social and experiential learning – HE is seen as an important ‘time and space’ but the focus is on experience as the mechanism for structuring and organizing reality and developing norms, behaviours and patterns of thought that will underpin future employability. Linked with this, skills and competencies, qualifications and credentials feature only as signifiers of eligibility for entry to the graduate labour market. Formal learning is not terribly important for parents. Experiential learning through life-experiences, new relationships and personal and psychological development are the currency of employability that parents hope will equip their children for their ‘probable future’ of occupational and life fulfilment.
SRHE member Valerie Anderson is a Reader in Human Resource Development in Portsmouth Business School and is Chair of the Research Activities Committee of the Universities Forum for Human Resource Development. She specialises in research and teaching about learning and development in higher education and in organisational settings. She tweets as @ValerieAnderso5 and can also be found on Google Scholar, Facebook and LinkedIn.