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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: To ITP or not to ITP

Stuart Middleton
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.



Pathways-ED: A parity of esteem… or parody of esteem?

Stuart Middleton
5 May 2011


I have just returned home after a Vocational Education and Training (VET) conference in Melbourne, the AVETRA Conference, and very good it was too with interesting papers, good keynotes and a lively atmosphere. But there was just one thread that I struggled to understand – the constant worry about parity of esteem between the VET sector and the university sector. There seemed almost to be insecurity about the standing of the VET sector in Australia and of the extent to which work in it was valued. There was a consistent feeling that comparisons between the VET sector and the University sector inevitably stacked up to the disadvantage of those engaged in applied learning in the trades and other career and professional activities. I was constantly wondering whether the situation was the same here in New Zealand.

I think it is time we all got past the whole sector thing. If the universities have put themselves on a pedestal it is jolly well time they got down where people are made of flesh and bones rather than marble. And it is also time for the VET Sector to put well behind them the old cloth cap image of themselves as workers who took their shoes off before they entered the academy.

There are a number of reasons for this. The universities have been increasingly vocational for a long time – what could be more vocational than preparing for a medical career, or completing a degree in town planning, or getting an MBA? Look at the fuss last week when an Australian university determined that in the interests of its student getting a “university education” they would first complete a general degree rather than a targeted vocational degree. A degree in the arts, or in the sciences, or in the humanities was the staple diet of a university school person. I always recall a teacher who was critical of my completing a DipEd early in my career – “gentlemen have ‘MA’ after their names, teachers have “MA DipEd’,” he said with barely disguised contempt. Of course this was before the universities lusted after market share and vocationalised most of their programmes and increased three year degrees to four year degrees to maximise income against the marketing spend. Oh dear, it has all been a sorry story.

So I cannot fathom why those who work in the VET Sector feel envious of their university colleagues, for colleagues they are as they toil away in complementary post-secondary areas. Of course just as the universities have come out of the front room and tried to take over the kitchen, the VET Sector has been unable to hide its pretentions to dine at the top table.

In these aspirations, academics in the VET Sector will always be at something of a disadvantage because so many of them are working in the VET Sector as a second career. Success in the applied area of a discipline is often a necessary precursor to a second successful career as a VET academic. Just on the basis of time available, a university academic probably has a bigger publication and research record by the age of 35 than a VET research could hope to have in a career in the sector. While this is hard to swallow, it is a defining characteristic of the differences between the sectors. VET researchers have to understand that being a university researcher is in fact a career in its entirety – go to any US research conference and you can see post-adolescents embarking with great enthusiasm on a career as a university researcher. And good on them.

I would also point out that parity of esteem is not about handing over to another person the power to make you feel good about yourself.  It is more about how you feel about yourself, about how you work with pride and know that your best shot is usually good enough and on many occasions when you are at your best, well ahead of this. Most importantly it is about the esteem in which students hold you for the value of your work and the care with which you teach.

Finally, if the VET Sector wants to feel valued then just let them see the importance of the work that they do to the future of the country. Certainly universities are important, not more so, but just as.

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