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The Professional Relevance of Study

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Disputes, Widely Shared Approaches, and Future Perspectives

image of International Journal of Chinese Education

The extent to which and how curricula, teaching and learning in higher education should be shaped to prepare students for their subsequent work and for activities in other life spheres has been a frequently and often controversially discussed theme in economically advanced countries since about the 1950s. The increase of the graduation rates from less than 5% to about 50% on average was often hailed as a contribution to economic growth and often criticized as leading to ‘over-education’ and increasing ‘mismatches’ between the graduates’ competences and the demands of the employment system. Over the years, insight gained momentum that many general judgements are misleading, because they tend to put too much emphasis on market cycles, try to infer too much from employment indicators about the substantive relationships between learning, competences and work and because they underestimate the diversity both in higher education and in graduate work tasks which grew enormously over time. Moreover, empirical research showed an impressive variety between countries as regards the concepts of higher education and the expected links between learning and subsequent work. In recent years, the term ‘employability’ became most widely used in the United Kingdom, but also spread internationally to some extent. It reflected the intention of its advocates to gear higher education instrumentally to the presumed need of the employment system. But views continued to vary in the recent discussions about the links between higher education and the world of work, whether more specialized preparation for the expected work tasks or more emphasis on general competences is preferable. At times, prime emphasis was directed to the question how elite higher education prepares for the ‘knowledge economy’, and at times the role of mass higher education for the intermediate level occupations was viewed as the most salient issue. Some concepts considered the student primarily as a ‘homo oeconomicus’, while other concepts underscore the importance of critical thinking, of freedom of learning in order to develop innovative ideas and of preparation for life in a ‘post-industrial’ society. The discourse can be viewed as a never-ending dispute or as driven by the persistent hope that a higher level of reflection might lead eventually to better solutions.

Affiliations: 1: University of Kassel


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