Mapping Student Employability Assemblages in the Post-Pandemic University
The increase of digital technologies in higher education (HE) has brought remarkable changes to universities in the wake of COVID-19. The purpose of this small scale study is to build understanding of how the presence of digital technologies in universities contributes to the construction of the post-pandemic university, by examining the policy issue of student employability. Using an innovative approach to policy ethnography involving digital visualizations, the research will contribute to understanding shifts in the nature of university education that have taken place as a result of institutional responses to the COVID‑19 pandemic. The impacts of the pandemic on HE systems warrant attention as they relate to both HE governance as it is influenced by external actors and how we plan for student learning in an increasing digital world. The research is aimed at addressing SSHRC’s future challenges: “Envisioning governance systems that work” and “Working in the digital era”.
The impacts of COVID‑19 on student employability are a pressing policy issue for government ministries, university faculty and administrators, employers and students. A Canadian government survey demonstrates that 67% of students reported being very or extremely worried about having no job prospects (Statistics Canada, 2020). The impact on academic capacities was also expressed with 35% of students reporting delay or cancellation of planned work placements. Their concern is valid with the pandemic leading to substantial labour market disruptions for students as the April 2020 employment rate of students aged 20 to 24 in Canada was 29.8%, compared to 52.5% only two months earlier. There may be no bigger issue at the moment for universities than the uncertainties of the pandemic on HE.
The challenges from COVID‑19 present a significant opportunity for digital technology that blends university, employability and data infrastructures. Yet, the influences of digital technologies in education governance are not without controversy. Concerns over corporatization creep into universities include how data are collected and used, the extent to which this shift to digitization opens the realm of public education to private interests, and equity in access for students. The concerns about technology are not new to the times of the pandemic, as digital infrastructures, artificial intelligence, analytics and algorithms become increasingly intertwined in university policy and governance.
This proposed research involves a creative approach to policy ethnography using interviews with university students to produce digital graphic recordings that visualize student engagements with digital technologies related to employability. These visualizations will illustrate how student concerns with employability, digital technologies, data infrastructures and university institutions are connected in “student employability assemblages”. The aim is to better understand influences of digital technologies in universities and how these student employability assemblages shape university governance both during and after the pandemic. The visualizations will be used in policy briefs that translate research knowledge that are relevant for policymakers and practitioners interested in understanding the influences of digital technologies both during and after the pandemic and the implications for equity in access for students.