VET’s identity crisis – here’s how to fix it

identity_project

The popular construction of vocational education and training’s identity is institutional: the vet sector is what vet institutions do.

Observe that vocational education and training’s identity has been founded on four types of characteristics: epistemological (a distinctive form of knowledge), teleological (a distinctive purpose), hierarchical (a distinctive occupational, educational or cognitive level) and pragmatic (residual — not elsewhere included).

The common Australian identification of diplomas and advanced diplomas with vocational education and training is not only relatively recent, it is also peculiar to Australia.

In North America and the UK there is a clear distinction between the designation of vocational education and training institutions and vocational education and training qualifications. This allows jurisdictions in those countries to designate the highest sub-baccalaureate qualification as unequivocally higher education, while at the same time retaining the flexibility of delivering short-cycle higher education through non baccalaureate-granting tertiary education institutions.

Follow the North American and United Kingdom examples and decouple the institutional and programmatic constructions of identity. This gives vet institutions a broader role, it would greatly improve access to higher education for people distant from a comprehensive higher education campus and it has the potential to improve access to senior higher education institutions.

by Gavin Moodie, BA (hons), LlB (Melb), PhD (UNE), Cert IV Assess. & Training, Australian legal practitioner 1984 –

The popular construction of vocational education and training’s identity is institutional: the vet sector is what vet institutions do. This coincides largely with a programmatic construction of vet’s identity: the vet sector is identified by a characteristic set of courses or programs. In Australian vocational education and training there is an almost complete intersection of the institutional and programmatic constructions of identity, and this is reinforced by the sector’s almost complete organisational separation from higher education. While this is deeply ingrained, it is neither longstanding nor necessary. It is also peculiarly Australian. The paper argues that Australia should follow the North American and UK examples to decouple the institutional and programmatic constructions of vet’s identity. This would give vet institutions a broader role, it would greatly improve access to higher education for people distant from a comprehensive higher education campus and it has the potential to improve access to senior higher education institutions.

Institutional construction of identity

Elsewhere (2002a) I observe that vocational education and training’s identity has been founded on four types of characteristics: epistemological (a distinctive form of knowledge), teleological (a distinctive purpose), hierarchical (a distinctive occupational, educational or cognitive level) and pragmatic (residual — not elsewhere included).

The popular understanding of vocational education and training’s identity is probably another pragmatic construction of identity, the status quo: what happens to be the arrangement in a particular place at a particular time. Crudely, on this construction the vet sector is what vet institutions do. The institutional construction of identity has also been proposed as an analytical basis for the sector’s identity (Williams, 1979:752). The institutional construction of identity is unproblematic if practice is consistent, at least within the jurisdiction of interest if not internationally, and if it is consistent with other constructions of identity.

Programmatic construction of identity

One of the hierarchical constructions of identity is by level of course. All Australian vocational education and training institutions offer sub-baccalaureate tertiary certificates and since only vet institutions offer these awards they are unique to and therefore distinctive of vet. Vocational education and training institutions enrol 94% of the student load in diplomas and advanced diplomas (Moodie, 2002b) so these, too, are commonly regarded as vocational education and training awards.

This, the common programmatic construction of vocational education and training’s identity therefore largely coincides with the institutional construction of vet identity.

Australian sectoral divide

The alignment of the institutional and programmatic identities of vocational educational and training is reinforced by its almost complete organisational separation from higher education. Vocational education and training is offered almost exclusively in vet institutes previously called TAFE colleges, responsibility for financing and coordinating the sector is mostly with State and Territory governments, students pay tuition fees up front, the curriculum framework is set by training packages and qualifications are accredited in accordance with the national training recognition framework. Conversely, almost all of the distinctively higher education qualifications are offered by universities for which the Commonwealth has primary responsibility for financing and coordinating, fees are mostly collected through the higher education contribution scheme and higher education’s curriculum is based largely on content which the universities accredit themselves.

Teaching staff in the two sectors think of themselves very differently and construct their industrial interests differently. Teaching staff in vocational education and training are represented by the Australian Education Union which also represents school teachers, while higher education teaching staff are represented by the National Tertiary Education Industry Union which also represents general staff in higher education. Some of the tensions in inter-sectoral relations and obstacles to closer integration of the sectors can be traced to teaching staff of one sector protecting work and conditions from alternatively undermining or encroachment by staff of the other sector. The State branches of both unions are particularly jealous — or vigilant — in maintaining the sectoral boundaries.

TABLE 1: THE AUSTRALIAN SECTORAL DIVIDE

Characteristic Vocational education and training Higher education
Institution TAFE college . University
Courses Advanced diploma Diploma

Certificates

Doctorate Masters Graduate diploma Graduate certificate Bachelor
Financing and reporting States Commonwealth
Fees Up front Income contingent loans
Curriculum Training packages Content
Accreditation National training framework Self-accrediting
Union AEU NTEU

 

The alignment of vet’s identity with distinctive organisational arrangements leads the sector’s supporters to resist the harmonisation of organisational arrangements between the sectors despite obvious advantages. Thus in its submission to the Commonwealth review of higher education in 2002 the vet institute Canberra Institute of Technology argued for ‘the need to preserve different management and funding arrangements as the means to preserve essential differences based on government objectives, industry input, educational philosophy and industrial relations realities as outlined above’ (2002:6). And several submissions to the same review from other vet interests rejected the extension of income contingent loans to vet despite their obvious equity benefit. (See, for example, the submissions from the Australian Education Union (2002) and the somewhat ambiguous submission from TAFE Directors Australia (2002).)

The different financing, student fee and organisational arrangements between the sectors cause a host of anomalies between students studying diplomas and advanced diplomas in vet and students studying the lower levels of bachelors degrees in higher education institutions with which they overlap. As the minister’s overview paper for the Commonwealth’s review of higher education observes, students pay different fees under different arrangements and with different levels of subsidy by different levels of government depending on whether they are studying in a vet or higher education institution (Nelson, 2002, para 81). The depth of the divide between vet and higher education causes difficulties for any government that seeks to develop an integrated series of offerings between the sectors, as the Commonwealth argued in its discussion paper Varieties of learning: the interface between higher education and vocational education and training (DEST, 2002b).

But the apparent neatness of the sectoral divide is partly illusory, it is temporary and it is local.

Equivocation: diplomas and advanced diplomas

While higher education institutions enrol only 6% of student load in diplomas and advanced diplomas, the Australian Qualifications Framework says that diplomas and associate diplomas are both vet and higher education qualifications, depicting their relationship with other tertiary education qualifications thus.

TABLE 2: AQF’s DEPICTION OF TERTIARY EDUCATION QUALIFICATIONS

Vocational education and training Higher education
Doctorate
Masters
Graduate diploma
Graduate certificate
Bachelor
Advanced diploma Advanced diploma
Diploma Diploma
Certificate IV
Certificate III
Certificate II
Certificate I

Source: Australian Qualifications Framework 2002, table 1

The Australian Qualifications Framework reflects the historical legacy of higher education institutions’ offering diplomas and advanced diplomas. In 1977 the university and advanced education institutions of higher education enrolled just over 97% of all diploma and advanced diploma students.

TABLE 3: PROPORTION OF ENROLMENTS IN DIPLOMA LEVEL COURSES IN

UNIVERSITIES, COLLEGES OF ADVANCED EDUCATION AND VOCATIONAL EDUCATION AND TRAINING INSTITUTIONS, 1977

Vocational education
and training
Advanced education Universities
2.6% 90.4% 7.1%

Source: Williams (1979:20) tables 1.1 and 1.7.

Before the establishment of advanced education sector sub graduate diplomas and certificates were a significant part of universities’ offerings, being 15% of all university enrolments in 1939, for example (DEET, 1993:5). Even as recently as 14 years ago Stevenson was still able to argue that ‘since higher education is usually defined to include associate diploma and diploma courses, such a definition is not exclusive of the courses presently offered in tafe, the types of courses historically offered by tafe, or the courses which the community will continue to demand from tafe in the future’ (1988:132).

The common Australian identification of diplomas and advanced diplomas with vocational education and training is not only relatively recent, it is also peculiar to Australia.

Sub baccalaureate qualifications in North America and the UK

In North America — most Canadian provinces and all US states — the sub-baccalaureate qualification is the associate degree. With a few exceptions they are offered only by non baccalaureate-granting tertiary education institutions, most commonly known as community colleges. In most North American jurisdictions there are strong transfer arrangements between the associate degrees offered by community colleges and the baccalaureates offered by 4-year colleges and higher institutions, and these transfer arrangements are required by law (`mandated’) by the more closely coordinated states such as California, Colorado and Texas.

Associate degrees are therefore understood to be higher education qualifications — known generically as short-cycle higher education — and in almost all jurisdictions community colleges are categorised as a segment of higher education which also offers ‘terminal’ or vocational qualifications and general postcomplusory education, for which the closest Australian analogy is adult education.

TABLE 4: QUALIFICATIONS BY TERTIARY EDUCATION SEGMENT, NORTH AMERICA

Segment/qualification Institutional type
Higher education
Doctorate Research university
Masters Comprehensive and research universities
Baccalaureate 4-year college and comprehensive and research universities
Associate degree Community college

 

Segment/qualification Institutional type
Vocational and general

education

Diploma Community college
Certificate Community college

 

The sectoral distinctions in the United Kingdom are more familiar to an Australian observer, but interestingly the unequivocally higher education qualifications of ordinary baccalaureate and foundation degrees are offered by colleges of further education under licence or ‘franchise’ to a collaborating university or consortium of higher education institutions as well as by universities in their own right.

TABLE 5: QUALIFICATIONS BY TERTIARY EDUCATION SECTOR, UK

Leve/qualification Institutional type
Higher education
Doctorate University
Masters degree,

postgraduate certificate, postgraduate diploma

University
Honours degree, graduate certificate, graduate diploma University
Ordinary degree, foundation degree, higher national diploma University and

college of further education

Higher national certificate College of further education
Further education
Various vocational certificates and diplomas College of further education

 

Separation of institutional and programmatic identities

In North America and the UK there is a clear distinction between the designation of vocational education and training institutions and vocational education and training qualifications. This allows jurisdictions in those countries to designate the highest sub-baccalaureate qualification as unequivocally higher education, while at the same time retaining the flexibility of delivering short-cycle higher education through non baccalaureate-granting tertiary education institutions.

There is no reason why the institutional and programmatic designation of the sectors might not be similarly decoupled again in Australia, which would open a number of new policy options for government.

Discussion: policy options

The obvious new policy option opened by separating the institutional and programmatic designations of the sectors’ identities would be to allow vocational education and training institutes to offer the first one or two years of baccalaureates. This has obvious attractions in extending the provision of higher education to regions which can sustain a vocational education and training institution but not a full higher education institution, but it has potentially wider application and greater attraction to the Commonwealth Government.

This option could be extended by redesignating and perhaps reconceptualising, and if necessary reconfiguring the diploma and advanced diploma as unequivocally higher education qualifications, which like the North American associate degrees and the UK foundation degrees, would be closely articulated with the baccalaureates offered by the senior higher education institutions. Again, this would most obviously extend opportunities in rural and remote communities, but it would also provide another avenue into higher education for students who don’t enter senior higher education institutions directly.

Another option opened by decoupling programmatic and institutional constructions of identity would be to change diplomas and advanced diplomas from a site of duplication, overlap and competition between sectors and governments to a site of shared qualifications, responsibility and financing between the sectors and levels of government. This could be done by reconceptualising the qualifications as neither specifically vocational education and training nor specifically higher education, but as a new level of higher vocational education shared by both sectors. The new level could have curriculum, financing, fee and administrative arrangements which acted as a bridge to ease transition between the sectors.

These new options would be in addition to the existing options that maintain or reinforce current understandings of the sectors. An obvious option is to move in the opposite direction to those discussed above, to a complete separation of the sectors. This is rarely if ever done in Anglophone jurisdictions. But it has been achieved in bilingual Quebec, which neatly places its general and vocational colleges (college d’enseignement general et professionnel) distinctively between secondary and higher education, since it is not possible to proceed from school to university without first completing the CEGEP’s diploma of collegial studies (diplome d’etudes collegiales) which normally takes 2 years full time after completing the secondary school diploma (Quebec, 2001).

TABLE 6: STANDARD PROGRESSION THROUGH QUEBEC’S EDUCATIONAL LEVELS

Qualification Institution
Doctorate University
Masters University
Baccalaureate University
Diploma of collegial studies General and vocational college
Secondary school diploma Secondary school

 

A final option is to do nothing, or more likely, to continue fiddling at the margins.

This would be sensible notwithstanding the Commonwealth’s attempt to problematise the relations between the sectors in its review of higher education in 2002. There is no good measure of the extent of transfer between the sectors, but it is reasonable to infer that it is from the 7% of students commencing bachelor courses who are admitted on the basis of a TAFE qualification to the 14% of commencing bachelor students who have an advanced diploma, diploma or other TAFE qualification upon entry (DEST, 2002a).

Even were transfers towards the top of that range, the volume of boundary problems would be small, or at least readily manageable within current arrangements.

Conclusion

The status quo is a powerful determinant of vocational education and training’s identity: the vet sector is what vet institutions do. And since VET’s identity is so closely tied up with the status quo any suggestion that the status quo might change threatens VET’s identity: any change to what vet does changes what it is. VET’s stable position is therefore inflexible to change.

When vet is forced to change its identity it is destabalised, and it hankers after Rushbrook’s (1997) ‘abstracted institutional teleology’ or Stevenson’s (1988) ‘positive purpose . . . characterised by clarity, coherence and continuity’. While a teleological identity — one based on a distinctive purpose — would indeed be ideal (in both senses of the word) in a previous investigation I was unable to identify such a purpose of sufficient generality to encompass vocational education and training even in the jurisdictions we have considered in this paper, while at the same time being sufficiently precise to delineate it from other forms of education.

Neither could I find a purpose that encompassed vocational education and training’s past, let alone being a guide for the future (Moodie, 2002a).

The institutional construction of vocational education and training’s identity also generates anomalies when it deviates from the programmatic construction of vet’s identity, in the equivocal treatment of the diploma and advanced diploma as I have argued here. This could be resolved in a number of ways. The easiest option is to ignore the anomalies. This is untidy but manageable since the boundary problems caused by the anomalies are marginal and are little more than annoyances. A conceptually simple but probably practically difficult option would be to align the institutional and programmatic constructions of vet’s identity by making the diploma and advanced diploma the exclusive responsibility of vocational education and training.

Another possible response is to argue that the institutional and programmatic constructions of vet’s identity are misconceived, and that the sector’s identity is better founded on a distinctive epistemology and perhaps also pedagogy (Stevenson, 2000). It is very difficult to identify VET’s distinctive epistemology without in the end invoking the old dualism of VET being the training of the hand compared with higher education’s education of the mind, or at least tacitly importing a hierarchical construction of identity.

For if VET’s distinctiveness were only epistemological and not also hierarchical, why do we not (yet) have VET doctorates? It also seems to me that the epistemological differences within the sectors are as great as the differences between the sectors. There is not only the difference between the empirical and heuristic disciplines, but also between the scholarly and creative disciplines and between the articulated knowledge of the anatomist and jurist and the tacit knowledge of the clinician and the advocate.

I prefer to follow the North American and United Kingdom examples and decouple the institutional and programmatic constructions of identity. This gives VET institutions a broader role, it would greatly improve access to higher education for people distant from a comprehensive higher education campus and it has the potential to improve access to senior higher education institutions.

 

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