02 SES 17 C, Higher level vocational education: the route to high skills and productivity as well as greater equity? An International Comparative Analysis
Applied degrees in colleges emerged as a distinct form of provision in many Anglophone countries around the turn of the 21st century. This includes foundation degrees and vocational degrees in England, applied baccalaureates in Canada and the United States, and vocational degrees in Australia. The three rationales for this provision are that it can: expand access to higher education (HE) for disadvantaged students; result in HE aligned with the needs of the workplace; and, be cheaper for governments and individuals compared to university provision (Wheelahan 2016). Those of us researching the emergence of this provision thought that it would grow and be a key mechanism to underpin universal systems of higher education (Bathmaker et al. 2008, Skolnik 2013, Wheelahan et al. 2009). However, it did not, and instead growth has occurred through expansion of enrolments in universities. This paper is a theoretical reflection on two research projects led by the author in Australia (Wheelahan et al. 2012, Wheelahan et al. 2009) and one project in Ontario, Canada (Wheelahan et al. 2017). It also reflects on research by other colleagues in Australia (Webb et al. 2017), Canada and the US (Skolnik 2013), and the UK (Bathmaker 2016). The paper explores two limitations on the growth of college HE: first, government ambivalence and intermittent aspirations for differentiation; and second, government marketisation policies that compel colleges to compete with universities in a stratified and hierarchical market structured by positional goods. The paper uses Trow’s (1974) framework of elite, mass and universal HE and Marginson’s (2016) framework of high participation systems to explore the emergence of universal HE systems; neo-institutional theory to explore pressures towards isomorphism and credentialism in these countries (Scott 2014); and, Clark’s (1983) ‘triangle of coordination’ to explore the roles of the state, the market and academic coordination of HE. The paper shows how the hierarchical nature of HE systems keeps college-based HE in its place as a lower status route for disadvantaged students. In universal systems, starting positions are unequal and different forms of participation in HE confer different levels of social and economic advantage. HE systems in Anglophone liberal market economies are structured as a positional good in a partly zero-sum game. Government structured HE markets elicit pressures towards isomorphism and credentialism with college degrees compared to university degrees and found wanting, while government accreditation requirements contribute to imposing ‘university models’ of the degree on colleges.
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