14 November 2011
I have been intrigued recently at the emergence of a theme in the discussion of TAFE in Australia over recent months. From my perspective it seems to centre on one thing – a quest for esteem for those engaged in TAFE activities.
What is a little troubling is that the esteem is sought in trying to claim the markers of that, that distinguish the university system. Parity in research, degrees, remuneration are all sought in order to achieve a parity of esteem between the TAFE sector, in New Zealand the ITP sector, and the university sector.
Well, of course, trying to pursue this pathway will not work and the time spent would be better directed to the yellow brick road or perhaps the quest for the rosy glow of Shangri La.
The real esteem in ITP education and training is in its intrinsic value and this is enhanced by defining a space within tertiary education for itself, a space that can only be filled by the trades and the kinds of applied education that marks career / trades / vocational education.
Then again, the university sector has become blatantly vocational so that the degree end of ITP sector inevitably has a superficial look of the university about it. A closer and more subtle inspection should show that the ITP sector degrees are not like university degrees at all. But is there a suspicion that they try to be?
In New Zealand we have been working away for the past ten years or so in an effort to develop a “network of provision”, a tertiary sector that is characterised by a set of different kinds of tertiary institution sthat makes a unique contribution to the portfolio of postsecondary education and training.
The ITP sector in New Zealand is largely the domain of Polytechnics and Private Training Providers (PTEs). But the singing sirens of Lorelei have distracted these providers from time to time. Those sirens have come in the guise of degree teaching and research and just like those women of the Rhine, have lured the providers onto the rocks. The search for parity of esteem is not simply a desire to be the same and where technical and career providers have attempted to pursue a sameness with universities, the result has been rather threatening to the mission of the very provision of the kinds of education and training that mark the ITP providers as being different from the university.
Let’s face it. Those of us who work in the career and technical education end of the system work in the kitchen rather than the lounge. We teach people to do the dirty work. We teach them to do the jobs that you do standing up rather than sitting down. Yes, it is the blue collar end of education. That is why it is so important.
Without the work of the ITP sector, many industries and a good part of the economy would simply grind to a halt as machines and processes broke down, as record keeping and procurement failed to keep pace with the organisation, as supervision and on-the-shop-floor guidance disappeared. It is this middle-earth of business and industry that the graduates of ITP sector inhabit (or should that be inhobitt?).
Of course there are some aspects of government activity that threaten the place of vocational education and training. Those countries that set targets for the proportion of the population that should have degrees are simply creating another form of distraction. There is no persuasive evidence that more people with degrees are needed across the board. The real shortages are in the middle level of qualifications, the technicians, shop-floor supervisors and so on.
This means that ITP sector would be helping itself by urging that qualifications such as the Diploma and why not the Associate Degree, be given greater status. Small the gate might be to get into university but wide open it is for ITP sector. This open access characteristic of ITP sector is one of its strongest features as through this it can help people to become a productive contributor to the community.
The key confusion in the matter calls for a differential approach between university and ITP provision is the extent to which universities have become vocational, largely for marketing reasons. Where once graduate diploma topped students up after the completion of a general degree they have significantly been side-lined by specialist undergraduate degrees.
This means that “vocational” has become not so useful in defining ITP SECTOR work. I like the notion of “linked learning” – learning that links down into the previous educational experiences and successes of students and links upwards and outwards to the world of work. This makes those of us in the ITP sector us in comparison to our university colleagues neither better nor worse, neither more important nor less important and neither more worthy nor less deserving of funding.
We are both blessed with the opportunities that our work opens to us to make a difference.