The Vocational and Academic Divide

Eline Jaktevik

9 June 2015

Traditionally, higher education (HE) and vocational education and training (VET) have been heavily divided, with limited movement of students between the two systems. Not only has there been minimal co-operation and integration between the two systems, but they tend to serve different sets of learners and occupation groups. This is slowly changing, due to expanding efforts to promote lifelong learning and equity in education, as well as the growth of the knowledge-based economy and increasing demands for higher skill levels.

The trend towards greater permeability of HE and VET systems has been described as the ‘academisation’ of vocational education and the ‘vocationalisation’ of higher education. According to Michael Gaebel from the European University Association, the ‘line between the education sectors based on theoretical research knowledge versus practice informed training [is becoming] increasingly blurred’. The introduction of national qualification frameworks in many countries around the world has attempted to increase integration between the two systems by creating bridges at different levels of education. Within the European Union, the Copenhagen Process, launched in 2002, calls for greater transparency, recognition, and transferability of competences and qualifications at different levels, both within and between countries.

While integration between the two systems is slowly changing, the movement remains very limited. A study from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills notes that approximately 40% of vocational learners progress to higher education, compared to at least 90% of A-Level students. For people in apprenticeships, the figure is much lower at just 6%. According to the Wolf Report,  from 2011, only 11.4% of UK university applicants had a BTEC National Diploma in 2009.

At the other end of the spectrum, data on progression from HE to VET is virtually nonexistent. Estimates from Australia suggest that there are approximately two and a half times more students that move from higher education into VET compared to the other way around. This comes as a surprising and unusual finding - if it is the case, then it has the potential to shed new light on the relationship between academic and vocational education, as well as the motivations on behalf of learners that choose to progress. More information regarding progression of this kind, as well as the motivations behind it, would be hugely valuable.

There are a number of factors driving the trend towards greater integration between higher education and vocational education and training. One key factor is the growth of the knowledge-based economy and the demand for higher skill levels. The National Strategic Skills Audit for England 2010 shows that the greatest expansion in jobs has been, and will likely continue to be, in highly skilled areas of the economy. Even within sectors traditionally requiring low skilled jobs, there is a need for up-skilling in order to meet changing consumer demands. Increased mobility and progression between HE and VET would allow for flexibility in responding to changes in the economy, as well as individuals’ life circumstances. At a time when there are many uncertainties and changes surrounding the economy, this level of flexibility is likely to be important.

It is also possible that progression can lead to enhanced status and popularity of VET. A study from Cedefop notes that in countries where progression from vocational to academic study programmes is supported, there is more parity of esteem between the two systems. Moreover, increased mobility can be a way to ensure greater equality in education opportunities. In the UK, for example, more than twice as many young people from low socio-economic groups choose vocational routes compared to young people from higher socio-economic backgrounds. Ease of progression can provide new opportunities for learners from more deprived backgrounds.

For increased mobility to be possible, certain institutional structures need to be in place. This can be a challenge, particularly for countries where basic education is heavily tracked, such as in Germany, and where students are assigned to vocational or academic streams at an early age. A secondary school curriculum that prepares students for both academic and vocational study is unlikely to get sufficient backing and support from teachers as well as learners, as there is still the lingering perception that vocational education is for the less able students. A report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills notes that ‘the most able students are frequently steered towards traditional ‘academic’ options in schools, impoverishing the ‘supply’ of well-qualified and able learners commencing vocational programmes’.

Bridging courses have been introduced in order to enable progression for vocational learners that might lack the necessary entry requirements or skills to progress directly to higher education. Most bridging courses focus on progression between levels 4 and 5. While such courses are successful in widening the options for some students, they are seen as having little value in their own right. According to the CEO of the charity Rathbone, cited in the Wolf Report, ’these are qualifications that qualify you to do nothing but take another qualification’. Increasing permeability of HE and VET enables institutions to reaffirm, as well as reimagine, their role and identity in the education landscape. However, there is a danger that progression might reproduce the same structures and institutional divides if either is seen as an intermediate provider whose purpose is simply to encourage access to another institution. A report from EUCEN notes that continuity and progression are not necessarily welcomed and encouraged by vocational institutions who see themselves as providers of ‘final’ qualifications.

To tackle this problem, a greater understanding of how VET can compliment HE, as opposed to just the other way around, would be useful. Both HE and VET must be clear about their respective roles and how this reflects the needs of the labour market. This might include a redefining of roles, and the creation of new partnerships to serve common objectives. A simple re-establishment of the definition of VET would be a start; is it limited to traditional trades occupations, or does it represent professions requiring specific occupational skills, including aviation and medicine? Increased progression is likely to generate a grey area between higher education and vocational education and training. Clearly defined roles and identities might help to avoid duplication and wasted resources, as well as ensure that movement between the two systems is more targeted and purposeful. Moreover, effort should be made to raise the profile of VET, and to eradicate the myth that educational opportunities are restricted by one’s ability and socio-economic status.

There are many reasons to welcome a closer integration of higher education and vocational education and training: it enables individuals to respond to changes in the economy, promotes lifelong learning and can expand education opportunities. However, increasing integration also begs a rethink of the purpose of the education system. A greater understanding of future labour needs and how these can be supported by progression is necessary. Finally, there is a need to ensure that progression is genuine and mutual, otherwise it might end up re-producing the same structures that it was designed to end.

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