When in the framework of higher education and in the middle of the 21st century there is a discussion about what the new priorities should be, the old and well-known dichotomy about the university’s social or intellectual function still emerges. In the midst of debate on the educational challenge and at a time when globalization, environmental sustainability or the development of artificial intelligence are changing the playing field of economic and social relations, apparently irreconcilable purposes continue to conflict. Issues such as the need to form a critical citizenship or the formation of humanistic profiles seem incompatible with the commitment to prepare professionals capable of responding to the needs of a changing society and labor market. As if the University could not aspire to train workers who think or thinkers who work. As if aspiring to combine both issues would necessarily fall into an instrumentalizing and vulgarizing dynamic of higher studies.
The consensus on the role of the University in promoting social progress through employment was evident with the Bologna Declaration, which more than 20 years ago laid the foundations for the construction of a European Higher Education Area. At the doors of a new millennium, it was considered necessary to adapt the role of the University to the needs and demands of society and scientific knowledge, among which the promotion of employment occupied, and continues to occupy, a privileged place. Subsequently, with the Copenhagen Declaration in 2002, the need for better European cooperation in vocational training and education was reinforced as a guarantee to ensure social cohesion. However, the global commitment to definitively link higher education with employment, decent work and entrepreneurship was manifested when the 2030 Agenda, through Sustainable Development Goal 4, advocates for quality education that, at its At the same time, be inclusive, equitable, and promote lifelong learning opportunities.
This global, public and categorical consensus that today economic and social development involves training competent professionals who in turn operate personally and professionally with freedom, responsibility and civic awareness, cannot be carried out without a set of transformations that turn this training vocation of higher education into a clear orientation towards employability. A new conception of occupation that, unlike a more instrumental vision typical of industrial society, now, in the knowledge society, is understood as a continuous and changing process throughout life and that will be more successful the more fast, adjusted to the training received, stable and in better conditions.
Precisely, the current context – in which so many other challenges are added to unemployment figures such as automation or digital training, temporary management, talent retention or professional updating and specialization – intensifies the expectation of society regarding the capacity of universities to contribute to the adaptation of their graduates to this constantly evolving labor market. Faced with this task, universities cannot limit themselves to generating and transmitting knowledge, but must bet on an extended vision of support for personal and professional promotion that makes knowledge bear fruit, also in the form of job placement. For this, a true democratizing and transforming conception of education for employability must be integrated. A new employability that, 20 years after the Bologna Declaration, has gained in complexity, instability and uncertainty and whose promotion strategy requires that new perspectives be identified, recognized and integrated, among which the systemic, temporal and competence.
In relation to the systemic perspective, the University must re-locate its own role within an ecosystem of knowledge production and dissemination with increasingly complex dynamics and in which the exchanges of this knowledge take place through redarchic structures – in the form of network— and multi-actor. This transition towards an ecosystem vision in which the University no longer treasures the exclusive capacity to generate and transmit knowledge, but does occupy a privileged position to connect and catalyze its different expressions, can and should be used in favor of generating employability . In short, employment is still a formula of connecting diverse capacities and knowledge between nodes that also harbor threats and opportunities and that are distributed throughout the knowledge ecosystem.
If we look at the temporal perspective, the ability to maintain a quality job placement goes through a continuous or changing process that occurs throughout life. In this new temporary scenario, a finalist conception of education no longer makes sense, and the challenge of the university is now to promote the empowerment of the person and their ability to adapt to permanent change. Recent changes in the technological, economic and social environment have questioned the design of rigid training programs, defined career paths and professional careers, and have thus blurred the classic image of a defined training profile and of a job for life. in a single organization. On the contrary, the new labor context foresees a succession of training and work stages under several different formulas and inserted in different environments. This panorama attributes to the person the need to understand how she can design her training throughout her life and professional career, and to the university, the challenge of equipping her with enough tools to be able to make the right decisions at the right time.
At the same time, and from a competitive perspective, if we boast of the transformative capacity of education so that employability – of people – effectively becomes competitiveness – of organizations – and progress – of society -, it is essential that the university is able to combine, in the learning processes, the acquisition of technical and professional competences with the development of a critical and self-critical civic awareness. A citizen conscience that empathizes with the environment, that is capable of governing the impact of technology, that respects diversity, that fosters intellectual curiosity, that seeks scientific evidence, that has a global perspective and that fosters interdisciplinary collaboration in order to Address the resolution of complex problems.
This new approach to promoting quality job placement and its dimensions requires universities to redefine strategies, dynamics, capabilities and structures. Among others, the orientation to new employability requires a more permeable university, which maintains a constant dialogue with the rest of the inhabitants of the ecosystem, which opens the classrooms to professionals with a teaching profile or transfers learning outside the classroom. A more transdisciplinary University, that stimulates the fusion of knowledge, that recognizes and promotes unique academic careers and that designs new training itineraries wherever the new employment exchanges are created, which is at the intersection of disciplines. A more digital University, which takes advantage of the opportunities that technology offers to facilitate access, improve digital training, enrich learning and address diversity. A more inclusive University, which reaches out to vocational training, which diversifies educational proposals, in content and service, which eliminates bureaucratic complexities in updating curricula and which is committed to empowering students in their own professional future. In short, an enterprising University that interacts with the environment and catalyzes knowledge in favor of greater economic and social progress.
In the same way that people go to the University without distinguishing interests of vocations, illusions of fears or wills of abilities, we must flee from partial visions that try to fragment the objective of higher education. Neither two functions, nor three missions, but a single purpose: that of making society prosper also through the promotion of employability.