A necessary but not sufficient condition: discipline knowledge and employability

When Associate Professor Michael Hitchens studied for his mathematics degree, nobody ever talked about what he would do with it after graduation. Thirty years later, he says, we have a responsibility to our students to do more.

How did feel your own education prepared you in terms of employability?

Michael Hitchens - Image copyright MQ
Associate Professor Michael Hitchens

I was taught maths generally very well, some of my teachers were extremely good. But all they did really was teach me my discipline, and that’s not enough. I’m not saying the education I got was substandard for the time, it wasn’t, because that’s what a university was expected to do then. But it didn’t prepare you for what’s going to come next in your life. And we don’t know what that is. Physicists become company directors, you name it, people will go all sorts of places.

So what did they expect you do to with your maths degree?

I haven’t got a clue because they never talked to me about it. I’ve never worked as a mathematician.

So where do we start in terms of how to approach employability…

We should start with our responsibility to our students. Students who are giving us three, or in some cases more, years of their life.

We have a very central responsibility to educate students in our discipline – that’s a given. You cannot get employed as a scientist, engineer, IT person, mathematician, without having command of your discipline. And the reputation of the university rests on the integrity of its scholarship. But that’s a necessary but not sufficient condition. We have to do more than that.

The vast majority of our undergraduate students and our postgraduate coursework students will only come to us for a limited amount of time, and then they will go somewhere else, probably many other places, throughout their professional life. Very few will end up working as academics in a university. So we also have to prepare them for whatever comes next – whether that’s as a practitioner in the discipline, or something completely different.

So we then have to work out, how do we do that?  What experiences do we need to give our students here, what do we need to equip them with, how do we assess them?  How do we prepare them for what comes next?

Is there anything that particularly characterises employability in Science and Engineering disciplines?

I’m not sure that there is. While there are characteristics that differentiate a scientist from others, that flows from the fact that the disciplines are different, and what it takes to be a practitioner in the discipline is different.  But in terms of the general statement – no I don’t think it is. Because students will find jobs in a whole range of industries.  And employers are looking for other qualities beyond discipline knowledge, plus the fact that you’ve shown you can master something.

These lists of “Top 10 things employers want from their graduates” are mostly the same: they want discipline knowledge, communication skills, initiative, innovation, team work, flexibility.  We have to consider not only how do we give those skills to students, but how do we make it so that students can convince other people that they have them.  Everybody knows this is what students are supposed to have, but how are we going to produce students who can demonstrate that they have it?

That focus on being able to demonstrate, is that where some of our traditional approaches are lacking?

Some of our traditional approaches don’t give the students the skills we think we’re giving them. In a dynamic world these days, to get a job or to get your project up, you often have to give a very quick pitch.  How well do we prepare students for that sort of thing?  How well do we prepare students for judging other people’s pitches?

Another example – we are very careful and are legally obliged to say, here is your unit guide, here is your assessment item, here is what it’s worth, here is the due date three months in advance. And we will not change this. Is that how business works? Are we preparing students for the challenges and flexibility required out in the real world?  What are they going to do when they get into the workplace and the boss says, “I know what I told you yesterday, but by I need this by noon today!” And the student says, “where’s the marking rubric?”

There’s also a difference between the top 10 per cent of the class having those skills and the rest of the class having those skills.  A lot of times we’ll look at what we teach and we’ll say, if a student is on top of all this, of course they’ll have those skills. But a student can pass without being on top of it all, they can just scrape through and make up for it in other places.  They aren’t necessarily this well-rounded individual that a top student may be.

So if we focus on employability are we losing something of what makes a university a university?

That’s the challenge for us because it’s not what universities used to have to do.  It’s a possibly attractive short-term solution to say, “I know how to fit in all this new stuff, let’s have less of this other stuff”, and the standards drop, and long term that’s a path to ruin.  Because we have to remember that as I said, our reputation rests on the integrity of our scholarship. So we can do all sorts of bells and whistles, but if the foundation is missing it all falls apart.

It also very challenging for staff in that they are now being expected to do things that were not done for them, and for which they’re had no experience of, no preparation for, no training in.

Are you aware of any examples where we are already doing this employability thing really well?

There are things that we are doing that are good and things that we can work on.  Certainly PACE is a step in the right direction. And there are other examples – I know of one unit in Environmental Science at third year where they actually go out to a mining town like Broken Hill, and do soil analysis and write up a report to governmental report standards, and talk to the local community.  It’s a wonderful thing. And there are other similar examples. So there are patches, but they tend to be a little isolated and not terribly well integrated into the rest of the program.

What are your thoughts on the Learning and Teaching Green Paper’s approach to employability?

No Green Paper is a detailed plan. In many cases it talks at a very high level, so in some ways you can’t look to it for solutions.

Some of the implications of the Green Paper are quite profound change. And people have to accept that it’s not the role of the Green Paper to outline the detailed steps we have to take to make that change.

Associate Professor Michael Hitchens is Associate Dean (Quality and Standards) in Macquarie University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering.




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