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The employability of liberal arts and business students: navigating the development of cultural and social capital at an elite Australian university

posted on 27.02.2017, 00:10 by Bohren, Amy Helen
Since the turn of the 21st century, researchers have taken increasing interest in the employability of Australian university students. The vast majority of this work has been conducted from the economically-oriented skills-based perspective, which focuses on reporting graduate employment statistics, determining employer perceptions of skill requirements and documenting university initiatives to teach these skills. These studies are useful, in that they identify employability as a problem for particular groups of graduates, but insufficient, in that they are unable to explain why some fare better than others, and do not consider the broader context of students’ lives. For more than 30 years, graduates of the humanities, languages and social sciences have reported poorer rates of employment than their peers from other generalist disciplines such as business; however, little is known about why this difference exists. This thesis differs markedly from previous Australian studies in that it draws on literature from the field of sociology of education to develop a more nuanced understanding of how arts and business students navigate higher education to develop employability. Drawing on concepts from the critical social perspective and focussing on Bourdieusian relations of power, it examines the employability-related policies and practices of one institution; and explores how students understand employability, develop cultural and social capital and form graduate identity. In particular, it focuses on similarities and differences in they way arts and business students develop employability according to faculty learning culture and family background. The study takes a qualitative approach, involving a case study of one Group of Eight university, and mixed data collection methods to gain rich insights at three institutional levels. To understand employability from the perspective of the institution, the arts and business faculties and students, policy documents relating to employability and interviews with 43 participants, including senior administrators, career consultants, academics and students were collected and analysed. The findings of this thesis raise questions about the effectiveness of skills-based policy and ‘best practice’ at Australian universities and within their career services; and reveal stark differences in the ways students understand and approach employability. In particular, the findings show that faculty learning culture has a strong influence on students’ employability, and that the development of cultural and social capital is mediated by family background. Ultimately, who students become, academically and professionally involves a complex interplay of agency and structure, influenced by faculty learning culture, family background and significant others. This research extends Hodkinson, Biesta and James’ (2007) work on learning cultures, supports Brown and Hesketh’s (2004) argument that social class plays a role in employability and extends Holmes’ (2001) theory of graduate identity. Having taken an alternative, sociological approach to employability, this study provides a contribution to knowledge that may interest other employability researchers and Australian arts faculties in particular. The thesis concludes that the power to transform the way students understand and approach employability, and ultimately, the employment outcomes of liberal arts students, lies within universities, and requires cooperation between academics, faculty leadership, career services and institutional leadership, along with ongoing research.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Susan Webb

Additional supervisor 1

David Goble

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre



Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Education