Employability, social mobility, and epistemic access

Professor Sue Clegg
[email protected]
Policy agenda employability and mobility
Criticism of assumptions underlying policy
From Official Recontextualization Field to
Pedagogic Recontextualization Field - curriculum
Powerful knowledge and epistemic access
Generic knowledge and recontextualization
Vocational areas, traditional science, and
Access and equity
Coda feminist challenges to traditional
Policy agenda: employability and social mobility,
knowledge economy and competitiveness
2003 White paper The Future of Higher
Education, 2010 Strategy Document Skills for
Sustainable Growth, 2011 White paper Students
at the Heart of the System
HE a private good and students should contribute
Narrative not unique to UK 2009 UNESCO report
massification linked to social mobility - costs
shifted from state to student and increase in
private providers
Dominant narrative challenged by Brown
Lauder and Ashton The Global Auction
Competitive logic of accumulation breaks
jobs down and routinizes them
‘Digital Taylorism’ profitability depends on
asserting property rights and managing
knowledge - transforming tacit personal
knowledge into explicit codified knowledge
High tech companies ‘routine analytics’ done
by graduates in Bulgaria and India where
graduates a third of the cost of British ones
High skills but low wages
Static or falling social mobility
Working and non-working poor are
increasingly left behind –argument for higher
education becomes even more compelling –
high participation rates
Small highly mobile global elite
Jane Kenway’s work on elite formation –
choose only a tiny number of elite universities
Not just of social access also epistemic
access – need to look at curriculum
From Official Recontextualization Field (ORF)to
Pedagogic Recontextualization Field (PRF)
Exhortation to improve employability – generic
skills – ‘a mix of personal qualities and benefits,
understanding, skilful practices and the ability to
reflect productively on experience.' (Yorke, 2006)
Graduate attributes – a mixture of generic and
academic - Barrie 2004 ‘the skills, knowledge
and abilities of university graduates, beyond
disciplinary content knowledge, which are
applicable to a range of contexts’
Common sense of ‘employability’ in PRF
particularly at less prestigious institutions
Critics drawing on critical realist and
Bernstein distinguish between ‘powerful’ and
other sorts of knowledge
Powerful knowledge ‘Powerful knowledge is
powerful because of the access it provides to
the natural and social worlds and to society’s
conversation about what it should be like’
(Wheelahan 2010: 10)
Semantic codes - semantic gravity - degree
to which meaning is tied to context, and
semantic density - the social condensation of
Argue that high semantic gravity ties
meaning to context cannot be generalised to
other contexts in same way as powerful
knowledge – an issue of epistemic access
Inequalities: Wheelahan vocational education
Shay historically technical universities in SA
restricts epistemic access to higher levels
Translation of generic employability skills
Re-visiting data from PDP research suggests
that not straight forward
Generic employability embraced in curriculum
areas already ‘regionalised’ generic
Different recontextualization strategies in
introjected singulars - strongly framed
(boundaries) and classified (hierarchical)
Also distinguish knower codes and
knowledge codes (Maton 2014)
In our research egs Sport, Leisure and
Engineering (can’t assume from course names)
Students in these generic versions of the PDP
curriculum were encouraged to look at their own
study patterns and to reflect on their own metacognitive processes.
Might appear to involve the development of
abstract knowledge
In practice tended towards high semantic gravity
that is knowledge which is tied to its social and
symbolic context, in this case the narrow
contexts of the student’s direct experiences.
Traditional science curriculum are strongly
famed, singulars with ‘their own intellectual field
of texts, practices, rules of entry, examinations,
license to practice, distribution of rewards and
punishments’ (Bernstein 2000:52).
Maton (2014)strong knowledge codes that is
strong commitments to knowledge and truth
Weak knower codes that is a concern with the
‘who’ of knowing
PDP re contextualized as abstract skills needed
for the discipline - low semantic gravity
‘Knower-grammars refer to the strength of
the classification and framing of subjects and
their dispositions’(Maton 2014: 94)
Gaze trained gaze, cultivated gaze, social
gaze, born gaze (from weaker to stronger
knower grammars)
In PDP low semantic gravity cultivating right
sort of knower and needs of the discipline
Suggests an elite code (interesting work in
humanities Kathy Luckett and colleagues
Hypothesis – generic employability agenda
stronger in less privileged parts of the sector
(very difficult to get good data about PRF as can’t
be read off simply from descriptions)
Do know that traditional disciplines and well
established professions dominate in elite
70% of students from manual families go to new
universities only 13% go to Russell Group
institutions (Boliver 2013)
Issue becomes one of epistemic access to
powerful knowledge among less privileged
Access and equity
Whelan concludes from her research in the
Australian context:
‘This professional/ occupational hierarchy
reflects the class structure in society more
broadly. The professions are dominated by the
social elites, while at the other end, lower VET
qualifications in new fields are dominated by
students from low socio-economic backgrounds’
VET - high semantic gravity and less access to
powerful knowledge
A conservative defence of traditional disciplines?
Think not because feminist and other
interventions involved making newer better
knowledge claims
Reject strong voice epistemologies – and
judgemental relativism but sociologically can
show that newer participants challenged (some)
existing disciplinary claims
But we should ask questions about semantic
gravity and powerful knowledge in PRF
Curriculum and knowledge matter

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