Skip to content

Talk-ED: Trading Names


The use of both “academic” and “vocational” as terms that describe classes of education and training activity is one of those old hoary binary distinctions that might well be despatched to the rubbish bin.

We have for over a century loved to think that it was a matter of logic and orderliness that needed categories that were separate and neat and not blurred by subtlety. So “academic” and “vocational” served us well.

If you were “academic” you had refinement and intelligence and an innate ability to be a lawyer or a doctor or a philosopher, perhaps even a teacher (although I recall being told early in my time as a teacher that “gentlemen [sic] had MAs and teachers had MA DipEds!”). Not many people were considered to be “academic” – perhaps 10% of each cohort and that was about the number that therefore stayed in secondary school for five years and proceeded to enter the university.

I had the troubling experience as an imminent adolescent to have my identity as a learner called into question. At the end of primary school I was enrolled in a course to be a carpenter at the local technical college. The school principal intervened and insisted to my bewildered parents that I should not do this because I was “academic”. This cast a huge pall over the household. We had coped with many things but being called “academic” was beyond our experience. It was not just that we knew our place but also that we had bought into the view of those who pursued an academic track as being “brighter”. Further we did not feel that becoming a skilled tradesperson was in any way a second class choice.

But that was not a commonly held view. If you were more “vocational”, rather than “academic”, you were perhaps not so bright, you were better with your hands that with your brain, you like practical things rather than theoretical things, you used secondary school to pass through quickly and get out into the world of work.

Now, it must be abundantly clear by now, dear reader, that all of this was just nonsense. And yet I suspect the beliefs that kept these distinctions are still more alive than we would want to admit.

The Universities are clear about their right to inhabit the “world of academia” despite the fact that their publicity emphasises progression to employment and earning power – both strong indicators of a vocational orientation. In fact the developments within the university sector have seen the introduction of many more quite demonstrably vocational qualifications over the last 20 years.

So that leaves the “vocational” sectors looking as if they are left with only doing practical things. I don’t think that this true. “Vocational” is the new “academic” in as much as learning in such settings is both academic and vocational. It would be a brave assertion to try to say that this is not the case. Just because a sector has open access and is skilled in taking among the huge range of its students those who the education system has served poorly to that point points it seems to me to greater pedagogical skill than providers who skim the cream.

But I recently heard a university leader assert that “We do not train people!”  This has made me very nervous – the person that tested my eyes and prescribed the right glasses, the person that checked my hearing, my doctor, lawyer are all people with degrees from this very same institution. Of course they were trained!

It matters what names we attach to activity. CTE, VET, TVET are each an acronym that is used to describe trades training and preparation for many careers and professions.

CTE – Career and Technical Education – is a the term gaining ground in the US but I have a similar problem with that as I do with the academic / vocational split. Most learning could be described as having a career and a technical flavour.

VET – Vocational Education and Training – has been long favoured in Australia and other places as an accurate description and it does add “training” into the mix. This might please that University leader who assured a meeting I was at the other day that “we don’t train people.” But does it capture the broad range of areas that are covered in the VET sector? And as the university system has become increasingly vocational and about training, does it differentiate the sectors sufficiently?

Then there is TVET that is used in different places – Technical Vocational Education and Training. Now, this has a ring about it. “Technical” does accurately capture what much of the VET / CTE / TVET sector does. It is concerned in large measure with the middle level qualification the technicians that keep organisations, industries and operations ticking over sweetly and productively. It also takes note of the close vocational orientation of the activity – it produces job-ready graduates who have industry-current qualifications. And it does both education and training.

I think that TVET gets my vote.

Perhaps there are other ways of differentiating the sectors – a colleague of mine likes to refer to the universities as doing the work that you do sitting down while the VET sectors attends to the jobs you do standing up. Sounds good but too many exceptions. “Pracademic” was suggested to me – nah!

The key understanding is that all learning in this modern era is both academic and vocational and that this requires us to practice higher levels of parity of esteem than has been achieved to this point. To continue to have the great divide between what is thought to be “academic” and  that considered to be “vocational” is just another of those silly little habits of the past. And to ascribe status to it is even sillier – have you had to pay a plumber lately!


Published inTraining


  1. Dr Chris Asby Dr Chris Asby

    As a Doctor of Philosophy with a Bachelor of Science (Agriculture Hons) and 40 years experience in technical vocational education and training (TVET) at Tertiary level plus other direct hands on project experience applying the technologies and problem solving skills these qulaifications gave me at the start of my career, and with added time in applied vocational technical research to boot (ATR), the need surely is to redress the lack of understanding and recognition of the need for modern practictioners to be able to think and problem solve as well as do, in a technical world. For me this smacks of idiocracy, not just idiosyncrasy – the plane crashed because the technician did not look to see if all the screws were back in place – he was a technician with no problem solving skills and did not think …. todays world demands we think – lean manufacture demands thinking and problem solving skills – warfare is no longer line up and be shot – it is done by drones with thinking pilots many kilometres away – TVET and ATR are of this age and the universities and polytechnics need to integrate their capabilities, recognising they must build on strengths to give the learner/trainee the best possible deal and ability to earn a living and promote the betterment of the race in this age of applying technology to the human need ….

  2. In my opinion, Stuart, the distinction among these terms has much to do with the discipline with which we might be concerned. My “discipline” is engineering. You touched briefly on a more appropriate term, which applies equally well to others. Engineering is a profession.

    It does not matter, in my opinion, whether the education for that profession is received at a university or an institute of technology, at level 7 and beneath or level 8 and above, graduates at all levels join the profession. Universities certainly train students to work in that profession, and the professional body has firm oversight on the contents of the curriculum.

    And why? You touched on that as well. We want our physician to be job-ready, our accountant to be well trained, our teacher to be capable of imparting knowledge, and we hope that the bridges connecting us to our destinations and the automobiles that we drive were built and serviced by professional engineers, technologists, and technicians.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *