8 August 2011
The world of education is a funny place. It remains one of the last bastions of the struggle between the classes only in this instance it is the struggle between academic and vocational.
In Canberra a decision has been made to merge, amalgamate, bring together – what ever word you choose – the University of Canberra and the Canberra Institute of Technology, a TAFE institution. This was recommended by the Bradley of The Bradley Report fame and such a recommendation is entirely within the framework of that report.
But immediately it was announced the discussion attracted the rather inevitable headline – Planned merger of uni, TAFE unwelcome! (The Australian, 5 August 2011). The ration packs were broken out to ready the troops on both sides for the scrap that inevitably lies ahead.
Such announcements mean that some will be winners and some will be losers. And whatever word you do choose to describe this process (which was something of an Australian sport in the late 1980s), there will be a major partner (which wins) and a minor partner (which loses more than it wins).
So what decides the winner/loser designation? It is not size or even quality and especially not the needs of the community – no it all still boils down to good old fashioned status. Education has never managed to develop any sort of willingness to understand or practise parity of esteem. And we all know what that means!
This state of affairs is fuelled by a strange belief that there is a difference between “academic” and “vocational”. Thinking about this distinction for a second or two exposes it for the hogwash that it is. What is more vocational than becoming a medical doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer? What is more academic than becoming an electrician, or a builder or a jewellery maker? All the old distinctions attributed to those two words and the pretentious behaviour they spawn no longer apply.
Yet still the immediate reaction to the suggested amalgamation sees the university Vice Chancellor assuring people that the university would seek to establish a polytechnic as a teaching-only institution for higher vocational qualifications. This was to be a “tri-sector” institution whatever that might be.
On the other hand, Dr Wheelahan, a specialist vocational education specialist, was adopting a defensive stance – it makes sense she claims but she is suspicious about a university takeover – it might not be a “marriage of equals” she fears. Is an institutional merger ever a “marriage of equals”?
It all boils down to the love affair of western education systems with the baccalaureate – status really is a matter of degree or in this case, degrees. Australia is one of those countries (others are the USA and the UK) which believe that goals which establish percentage target for students getting degrees will be the educational action that leads them to the promised land.
Apart from the fact that the countries haven’t much hope in meeting the targets they set (most young people who are qualified to go to university actually get there and the universities have seemed unable over a very long time to lift their successful completion rates), it is not increased numbers of degrees that we need but greatly increased numbers of young people with technical skills and older people with new technical skills.
This is exactly what a vocational institution does, it is why TAFE systems exist. Bringing together the two kinds of institutions – the university that would brand itself as academic and the TAFE institution that would be comfortable with its vocational reputation is an opportunity for rethinking the relationship between the two. It is a chance to think more carefully about the academic dimensions of vocational programmes and the vocational nature of academic programmes.
Instead I predict that both sides of the amalgamation will set out to “protect” the “very special and different” approach that they take to their work. We know that amalgamations do not save money despite financial gains being listed high among the reasons for them more often than not. We know that amalgamations can be managed so as to allow the same old ways of  working to continue, most of them have proved just that.
What would be exciting would be for Canberra folk to get together to craft a new approach based on multiple pathways that make opaque the hard distinctions between academic and vocational and offer flexible and linked pathways for students who would have options a little more subtle than pass or fail.
I have always enjoyed the description by Knight and O’Neill in a contribution about amalgamations in Wollongong to a study of mergers in that orgy of getting together in the late 1980s in Australia. They give a hint in the title which is “Mating and Amalgamation” I think they get it right.
Consider the position of some of the then threatened parties, particularly those universities and colleges which were to merge. The cliff edge is no place to indulge in philosophic discourse nor for romantic exploration. There were certain doctrinal problems, for university-college conjunctions amount to what used to be called mixed marriages. Such cross-sectoral mergers contradicted the rhetoric of those government agencies who for years had maintained that one party was refined and academical and the other (no less equal of course) was practical and responsive to needs. Universities might have seen themselves in the former garb but colleges actually came to believe their place was at the kitchen and laundry end of the tertiary abode. In short, it was generally supposed that college/university partnerships were a mis-match and to be opposed by both sides. The universities feared a pollution, the college a subjugation. In uppity circles the University of Wollongong was spoken of as if it were the Whore of Babylon for accepting the local college. As we know from Revelations (17:3), that lady sat upon a scarlet beast having seven heads and ten horns – not a bad description of the academic structure in many a combined institution.
 Knight, D., & O’Neill, A. (1988). Mating and amalgamating. In G. Harman & V. L. Meek (Eds.), institutional amalgamations in higher education process and outcome in five countries (pp. 67-72). Armidale: Department of Administrative and Higher Education Studies.