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Sauce for the goose but not for the gander

It was clear in the fall-out from the reduction in the numbers of students gaining university entrance in the recent round of NCEA results that the changes to the rules were driven by several principles that are of themselves quite worthy.

The first is that students should study a narrower range of subjects in order to know more. Or put another way, knowledge is gained vertically rather than horizontally. It is clear that the universities have believed this right from the very introduction of a standards-based assessment system when the move towards credits was described as the process by which knowledge had been turned into intellectual finger food!

That was not entirely true but there may have been a whiff of truth in it. Certainly depth of knowledge was thought to be in danger when students were given the opportunity to study subjects that are outside of the standard academic canon.

The second principle is that there should be a set of approved subjects that would be acceptable in making up the university entrance qualification. The existence of such an academic canon was the result of hundreds of years of development of universities as places of privilege and so certain subjects were also privileged. Such a list of privileged subjects was promulgated by the University Grants Committee and indeed even School Certificate maintained that privilege by on the one hand pretending to be norm-referenced while on the other using a procedure called “group mean referencing” whereby subjects undertaken by “brighter” students were scaled to a produce a higher set of results.

Now the education system has, some time ago, debated what real subjects were. “Twilight Golf” never made the cut, meditation had no observable actions that could be assessed, and language CDs handed out in cafes were thought to have had too few demands on the students. No complaint about all that.

But the firm grip that such views have enjoyed has seen a distortion on what was valued in terms of pathways to an education and to later success. Gradually only the track to university was valued in the school system and the capability and capacity of schools to provide programmes in areas that would grab the attention of young students was allowed to atrophy. The bog standard “academic” diet was going to nourish all the students.

When now there is a call for students to have the opportunity to study subjects based on applied learning and to specialize in technical areas that require skill and knowledge in greater depth in order to pursue fulfilling and useful lives in the community, that the argument is put forward that what students need is a broad and general education.

Is there a contradiction here?


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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.


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Talk-ED: Institutional Dating in the Internet Age

Stuart Middleton
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 [1] 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.

[1] 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. 

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