Talk-ED: You say tomato I say tomato, you say academic I say vocational

Stuart Middleton
15 February 2012


I have no understanding why it is so. Perhaps it is because we have two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears and lots of other bits and pieces in twos. But humans like us seem to have a fixation about binary opposites – life and death, night and day, evil and good, yin and yang. This last pair does shed some light on the issue – they are opposites, each cannot exist without the other, they impact on each other through mutual consumption and, I read, “one can change into the other, but it is not a random event, happening only when the time is right. For example: Spring only comes when winter is finished.”

This might be helpful in understanding why we are so fond of such distinctions in education – content/theory, product/process, and of course learning/teaching. But no distinction is more of an issue than that odd couple, “academic” and “vocational”.

Once there was something of a distinction. Academic was higher education, it was learning about much that improved the quality of life, of thinking and was the basis of an educated and knowledgeable person. Its purpose was not explicitly utilitarian. And this persisted until quite recently.

In the 1970s I went to school one day and mentioned to a group of colleagues that I had finished my DipEd to complement my MA. The Head of the Languages Department’s only comment was “Ah, Stuart, teachers might have an MA DipEd but gentlemen simply have an MA.” The grubby trappings of a vocational qualification were not for him.

But things have changed. The first is that the universities have become blatantly vocational. It is likely that this has been driven within the university by marketing and outside it by a community awash with cupidity. Increasingly degrees are offered that relate to a job rather than to an academic discipline – teaching, town planning, natural therapies, physiotherapy and so on. This reverse creeping credentialism (the modern dumbing down) has ushered in a decline in the value placed on the generic degrees such as BA and BSc that were once the platform from which post-graduate work of a more specifically employment related nature (sometimes taught outside the university) was possible.

A further issue is that there is no longer any clear vertical distinction between the vocational and the academic.  Much that qualifies people for work in business, industry and commerce which is vocational is very academic. The academic demands of such programmes are substantial. It used to be the case that you could enter professions (or were they vocations?) such as nursing and teaching with a middle level of achievement in a secondary school. Now you must enter the profession through the degree portal. Has the work changed to that extent?

And has this worked? Hardly.

When I reached the end of my primary schooling I was enrolled for a carpentry course at a Technical High School. This was a vocational secondary school that offered a wide range of technical and commercial subjects that led quickly into employment. The primary school Principal intervened and cautioned my parents that I should not pursue this vocational pathway because I was academic. For many years I was a very poor academic (and might well still be). Looking back there is some regret that we took notice of the advice.

The system largely solved the issue of increased difficulty in leading young people into employment by spreading comprehensive secondary education across our system and cleansing the curriculum of vocational skills other than in a generalised way that was academic and in no sense clearly vocational. And this was largely because the tracking / streaming that was implied by the system that was used to pursue vocational pathways became discredited. We had no choice but to try retain students longer in secondary education and this has had mixed success.

Consequently the issues of the academic / vocational debate have been transferred to the tertiary sector. But without the secondary / tertiary interface becoming blurred and porous, the grip on vocational courses by institutions that see themselves as academic will result in them becoming less accessible.

We will only start to meet the needs of all students if institutions do not continue to dine out, gorge indeed, on the sacred nature of that which is academic.

Academic is the new vocational. And vocational now requires much better academic preparation than the education system is currently delivering. As Dorothy Meier said back in 1994, “That academics has become the path all children must pursue in order to meet their non-academic aspirations – from engineer to lawyer to bookkeeper – is absurd”  If it was absurd back then it must surely the height of silliness now.

The use of academic and vocational is no longer a distinction and has instead become a distraction.


One comment

  1. Morena Stuart,
    As usual, you stir grey matter and that’s not a bad thing for an earlyish hour of an early weekday. But although the vocational academic divide you’ve highlighted is interesting and although such a divide may be distracting, there are some points to note.
    First, the recently deceased Richard Stanley Peters, the UK luminary who brought educational philosophy (quite boringly) to the world via BBC radio in the 1970s, wrote that there is a distinction between education and training. He reasoned that education is about the matter (curriculum), manner (pedagogy) and cognitive perspectives of learning. And for him, rather simplistically and, therefore, contestably, training involves a more basic level of cognitive skills than does education.

    Indeed, when the contemporary vocationally orientated and credential focused educational landscape is considered, Peters thinking is especially contestable. It’s debatable partially because, as you’ve highlighted, academic/vocational education and training/practice is the ‘new academia’.

    But the idea of training involving a more basic level of cognitive skills is also problematic because new vocationally focused academia is often geared towards gaining credentials which attest to a very high level of cognitive achievement. In fact, having appropriate recognised vocational credentials is typically a pre-requisite to gaining right of entry into many professions, for example, teaching, nursing, law and accountancy. (Regrettably, politics has no such requirement!)

    As a consequence of these contemporary demands, tertiary providers have reinvented hitherto traditional courses so that their customers, the students, can become prepared for entry into their chosen profession to an even greater extent than they have in the past. Teachers used to be ‘trained’ over and after two years at Teachers’ Training Colleges and nurses were ‘trained’ in hospitals as were doctors but only after they’d completed their medical degrees. Now each profession has complete entry level degrees and they have to be scrutinised with respect to practice competencies both during and after their degree studies. Otherwise, they don’t earn practicing rights. In a similar way, when they have completed their law degrees, solicitors and barristers can be admitted to the bar only after they have undertaken and passed professional courses which are run by their profession. It’s all about controlling entry into ‘the professions’ and commanding ‘industry’ standards.

    Yes, that may be creeping credentialism as you’ve described it. But it also involves learners accessing and gaining competence in applied education programmes which are ostensibly responsive to student demands and industry standards. And we mustn’t forget that it’s also very often a blend of practice based learning that is theory informed.

    The credential disease is thus practically inseparable from the new academia and vocational development / training. But that needn’t be a distraction if we choose to view it as an opportunity for developing skilful practice honed-minds. I’d assert that vocationally focused academia can and should grow authentic practices and skills which have been quality assured. This means that assessments must not become dumbed down. We must not be enticed into taking part in soft assessments which lead to inferior credentials. Speaking personally, I’m not at all sure that everyone has avoided such seduction.


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