HE Careers Learning Outcomes

by @leedsmuseumsandgallerries on Flikr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/leedsmuseumsandgalleries/)

by @leedsmuseumsandgallerries on Flikr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/leedsmuseumsandgalleries/)

As the saying goes if you aim at nothing you will hit it every time. Choosing what to aim at is evidently just as important as choosing how to get there. This is especially the case in education. Education in general is about a journey, where you want people to end up, or it is a process concerned with what sort of person you want to produce. So what do we want to actually produce? This question is of equal concern for Careers Education. What are we aiming to produce in careers education? What would be the marks of someone who has been successfully “educated” in their career? I have come up with four obvious approaches that occur to me.


Capital as a metaphor is about having resources which you can invest to achieve a particular result. The focus of careers education in this view becomes about giving students the right resources they possess. These resources are static artifacts, unchanging things. The current climate around HE Careers in the UK mainly focuses on this, sometimes named under the guise of the “employability agenda.” To make students employable they need to own various resources or artifacts. The classic two resources are work experience and CVs. Gain some relevant work experience that you can show to an employer, get it down on a CV that displays your experience. Students are equipped to compete in an application process, get a job they want, institution gets a chalk mark of a positive DLHE outcome. Job done. This is sometimes expanded to include social media profiles, professionals contacts and general qualifications. The big aim is to give students things they can possess.

The problem with this view is I am not sure it delivers what it promises. It is very tightly focuses on a recruitment process and the measurable factors that affect selection. What does this student have to offer becomes the only question. The problem with this is that it ignores the process of getting the student to the point of building this capital. How will a student decide what capital to develop? I find people who adhere strongly to this view assume that sensible people will have made a good careers decision and so look down slightly on anyone who has not decided about their future. I feel this is not the case and that careers work is often about helping people to choose for themselves.


Many people who are used to Careers Education will be familiar with the difference between a career plan and career planning. A plan is how you aim to get to where you want to go while career planning is based around deciding where you want to go. Planning is based around a WIRD, a Well Informed Realistic Decision. This view of careers work focuses in on decision making and giving students the ability to make evidence based, rational decisions. It argues that once the decision is made the capital development is the easy part.

The problem with this is that making a decision can cloud some of the larger developmental tasks. It focuses on self-awareness (for example) as a part of decision making rather than an outcome in its own right that can be used in a variety of situations (interviews for example). Firstly I feel this view can assume that developing capital is easy while choice is hard and so neglect capital almost entirely or demote it to a lesser role (potentially delivered by someone different). I feel this just commits the the same problem as the capital only position. Secondly the need to do more than just support decisions comes into particularly sharp focus when you consider the increasing need to keep on making decisions. Chaos and happenstance based theories of careers have argued that there is a need to keep on making decisions, making a decision once is just not enough in our rapidly moving world. Now on the one hand if you know how to make a decision once you can make it again but the challenge to keep on making and implementing decisions points to more of a need to develop a set of underlying skills to aid and support the ongoing decision making process. The focus is less on good decision making and more on becoming the right sort of person.


This idea of being the right sort of person is picked up by the concept of capacity. Capacity refers to a students ability to perform various tasks. The employable graduate framework I have produced attempts to articulate this in some form. The question here is more about what should a student be able to do. Performance is obviously a vital metaphor for students especially when destination measures are brought in to play so looking at the aspects of performance and what capacities need to be increased to allow this performance to occur are very important.

There is a problem here though which is that capability does not necessary lead to performance. The best side does not always win, sometimes the team with the potential does not convert this into a result. You can have the best skill set and the best strategies but still not be victorious. Now you may say that you should still win out in the end over time but talent and potential is still wasted in life. Why? I think there are a couple of reasons.

Firstly there is the issue of chance. On the small scale chance can get in the way of performance because their are frequently aspects outside of our control. In a selection process we can’t control the calibre of the other candidates, the variable moods of recruiters or the external factors that may affect our performance. It is probably the case that if we try for longer enough things will balance out and we will get the position we are capable of (we can’t always be unlucky). But still we must sometimes face up to the idea that bigger things outside of our control come in an affect our careers. Bereavement, mental health issues, economic downturns, changes in technology and government legislation (among others) all have the potential to derail our careers beyond our control.

Secondly there is the issue of motivation. A common complaint about talented sports people who apparently underperform is that they lack passion, they are capable of winning but they don’t because they do not want. The capacity is not converted into results because insufficient motivation. Careers capacity does not necessarily make things easy just possible. We still need to develop ourselves, build networks, grow our knowledge, reflect on our progress but decision making into practice etc. Often this does not occur because we can not but in light of the cost of time and effort we do not.


The above discussion implies we need to talk about what lies between capacity and performance. How do we talk about whatever it is which actually makes us perform. I like the term character. For me character is the inclination to pay the cost needed to pursue our convictions. So firstly it includes someone’s convictions, that is what is important to them, what they want the world to be like, what they are not prepared to lose or compromise on. This covers the issue above about motivation. Secondly it covers a robustness and cost paying that will not give up even when things change. The chance may take away one option it does not remove our capability to find other options. Take the example of Evelyn Glennie the world renowned percussionist who while an aspiring musician became profoundly deaf at the age of twelve. She responded this by learning to “listen” to the music she and other played through performing barefoot and feeling the vibrations of the music. This is what character is, the dual aspects of having a motivation and being prepared to pay a cost to achieve it.


I do not think that these options exclude each other but should rather build on each other. Capital is a powerful way to talk about why students are selected but they need the support in choice and in developing capacity to develop this capital in the first place. Capacity is a fundamental way of discussing performance but it still can be lifeless and dead without the character to put this capacity into practice. The problem though when we talk about learning outcomes is that the capital is a lot easier to observe and measure, it is fairly easier to assess if a student has a quality CV. It is harder to assess the rationality of their choices or the capacities they have developed and harder still to assess their character. But I feel this is the task ahead to conceptualise what HE careers should have as its output, how we deliver it a how we measure it.

Does anyone have any thoughts around this? Especially about how we might measure these outputs?

One thought on “HE Careers Learning Outcomes

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