Friday, July 15, 2011

vocational vs elite education

There is pattern amoung the arguments that I see around the University that I have been trying to articulate for a while.  It came together for me recently.

The problem I see is the difference in viewpoints between staff who are arguing about a particular topic.  The two viewpoints I have come to call "Vocational" and "Elite". 

The premise is that an "Elite" education institution is there to perform research and train other researchers. In this case, the marking scale is all about the top 20% of students. (Distinction, High Distinction) Essentially the other 80% of the students are washouts.  They are discarded and are worthless.  The purpose of this system is to select the best and provide a pathway to greatness for them.  This excuses any degree of silly competative/over assessment/ selection commitees etc that the system (or particular people) want to impose because the best will pass while the rest will not.

On the other hand is the vocational training point of view.  In this model, the training course is about volume throughput. The system is trying to generate skilled professionals who are ready to get out into the community and pick up some of the load.  In this case, there is probably an argument for trying to drop the bottom 10-20% but only if they actually fail themselves.  The rest of the students should pass and get their accreditation.  In this type of system, the assessment is set at a reasonable level to assess competence. 

I see these two viewpoints as the root of a great many arguments and frustrations around the Uni.  Its reasonable as most of the staff have been through an elite system. However some have come up from vocational systems, so there are fundamental differences in their perceptions of how the world works.

Currently too many of the courses are structured at one end or the other.  There are an unfortunate few that are a dysfunctional mix of the two. 
My personal feel is that all courses should be structured to have both a vocational stream and an elite stream.  Students should be able to study and get a job (where jobs exist) or compete for more elite training if they display the aptitude and commitment. 

Don't get me started on the insanity that is accreditation committees or accreditation bodies.  These are the worse embodyment of these points of view. 

The nursing program is moving from vocational to elite but without being able to drop the vocational aspect, because fundamentally, we need nurses.  On the other hand, the psychology program is moving from elite to needing to provide vocational outcomes for students.  There is a desperate need for mental health professionals, but the accreditation bodies are still trying to force all professionals to go through an elite model.  So we end up with only the top few students being able to get through, and they are then split between going into research and academia or becoming clinicians.  Meanwhile the community is starved of professionals and the remaining 80% of students have no clear pathway ahead.  Genius.

Unfortnatly, this is a very ingrained point of view.  Most of the staff have had very stong formative experiences at either end of the spectrum and struggle to see any sort of concensus. While the few people in the middle argue for something that they cannot implement without the help of the rest of the staff.

This all comes back to the argument about what is the role of Universities in society.  If they are vocational trainers... then what's TAFE for?  If they are elite reseach institutions, what are all the vocational training courses doing on the campuse? (cashcow!)

Can the two ends of the spectrum play together?  I think there are more partnerships between vocational and elite education opening up around the country, but all it takes is the appointment of a key player who doesn't get it and the whole system gets turned up side down.  See the recent appointment of our faculty dean for a case study. (Although she was clearly unsuitable for a number of reasons and will not be missed now they have canned her. What a fuckup.)

All we can do is change one mind at a time. 


  1. There's nothing wrong with vocational education. In fact, it is even beneficial to society because much of the work requires hands-on skills.


  2. Either this is a spam comment or my point was lost somewhere. Yes. I think vocational education is important and should be part of the "mindset" of more of the course designers and administrators in the Uni. I was ranting about the fact that many of the people I encounter are in either the "Vocational" or "Elite camp and have not figured out that there can be more than one....