5 May 2011
I have just returned home after a Vocational Education and Training (VET) conference in Melbourne, the AVETRA Conference, and very good it was too with interesting papers, good keynotes and a lively atmosphere. But there was just one thread that I struggled to understand – the constant worry about parity of esteem between the VET sector and the university sector. There seemed almost to be insecurity about the standing of the VET sector in Australia and of the extent to which work in it was valued. There was a consistent feeling that comparisons between the VET sector and the University sector inevitably stacked up to the disadvantage of those engaged in applied learning in the trades and other career and professional activities. I was constantly wondering whether the situation was the same here in New Zealand.
I think it is time we all got past the whole sector thing. If the universities have put themselves on a pedestal it is jolly well time they got down where people are made of flesh and bones rather than marble. And it is also time for the VET Sector to put well behind them the old cloth cap image of themselves as workers who took their shoes off before they entered the academy.
There are a number of reasons for this. The universities have been increasingly vocational for a long time – what could be more vocational than preparing for a medical career, or completing a degree in town planning, or getting an MBA? Look at the fuss last week when an Australian university determined that in the interests of its student getting a “university education” they would first complete a general degree rather than a targeted vocational degree. A degree in the arts, or in the sciences, or in the humanities was the staple diet of a university school person. I always recall a teacher who was critical of my completing a DipEd early in my career – “gentlemen have ‘MA’ after their names, teachers have “MA DipEd’,” he said with barely disguised contempt. Of course this was before the universities lusted after market share and vocationalised most of their programmes and increased three year degrees to four year degrees to maximise income against the marketing spend. Oh dear, it has all been a sorry story.
So I cannot fathom why those who work in the VET Sector feel envious of their university colleagues, for colleagues they are as they toil away in complementary post-secondary areas. Of course just as the universities have come out of the front room and tried to take over the kitchen, the VET Sector has been unable to hide its pretentions to dine at the top table.
In these aspirations, academics in the VET Sector will always be at something of a disadvantage because so many of them are working in the VET Sector as a second career. Success in the applied area of a discipline is often a necessary precursor to a second successful career as a VET academic. Just on the basis of time available, a university academic probably has a bigger publication and research record by the age of 35 than a VET research could hope to have in a career in the sector. While this is hard to swallow, it is a defining characteristic of the differences between the sectors. VET researchers have to understand that being a university researcher is in fact a career in its entirety – go to any US research conference and you can see post-adolescents embarking with great enthusiasm on a career as a university researcher. And good on them.
I would also point out that parity of esteem is not about handing over to another person the power to make you feel good about yourself. It is more about how you feel about yourself, about how you work with pride and know that your best shot is usually good enough and on many occasions when you are at your best, well ahead of this. Most importantly it is about the esteem in which students hold you for the value of your work and the care with which you teach.
Finally, if the VET Sector wants to feel valued then just let them see the importance of the work that they do to the future of the country. Certainly universities are important, not more so, but just as.
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