The Academic vs. Vocational Debate Revisited

The UNESCO Convention describes vocational education and training as:

  • “All forms and levels of the education process involving, in addition to general knowledge,
  • The study of technologies and related sciences
  • The acquisition of practical skills. Know-how, attitudes and understanding relating to occupations in the various sectors of economic and social life”

I believe this description states the true value of vocational qualifications and occupations. It is inclusive of all vocational disciplines and levels. It conveys the importance of competence/capability, generic and specialised skills, performance, problem solving and understanding. But for a number of reasons the situation in reality is very different, as this viewpoint will try and explain.

The history of technical and commercial education and training on this website identified and described the issues that have bedevilled the debates associated with academic and vocational education and training and the related qualifications and awards. In spite of a number of reviews over decades little has changed and the qualification system has continued to be dominated by the so-called gold standards of ‘A’ levels and full-time honours degrees. These qualifications have been protected by successive governments whilst technical, professional and vocational qualifications have been subjected to superficial periodic reviews and reforms that did not resolve the fundamental issues associated with these qualifications. These reforms have still not created a parity of esteem between the general/academic and vocational qualifications or even begun to counter/neutralise the negative perception of vocationally orientated qualifications and awards. The negative perception has deeply embedded cultural and historical roots as a result of the class structure. British education system like so much is driven be snobbery and class divisions.

One of the reasons is the debate is made more complicated by the way the word vocational is selectively perceived by people in spite of the description given above. Vocational qualifications and their associated occupations are perceived through a wide spectrum of interpretation. For example finance, law and medicine are seen as high status professions and involve study at degree level. Whilst other vocational occupations and their associated qualifications like automobile mechanics, hairdressing and plumbing are perceived as second class or of a lower status.
A number of factors can be identified that have created this wide distinction and the negative perception and attitude towards many technical, commercial and vocational education and training programmes, qualifications and occupations. These include reputation, understanding and relevance.

There is a strong correlation in this country between the status and reputation of vocational education and training and what occupation the learner is pursuing i.e. it is a social class/status issue reflecting the continuing presence and influence of social class distinctions. Although as stated above some vocational programmes are seen as being of high status, craft and trade professions are perceived as low status which are often lowly paid and part-time. Even when society places a higher status on some vocational occupations e.g. nursing and teaching these are not fully valued, recognised or well paid.

The persistence of inaccurately informed attitudes is fed in the education system initially by poor careers information, advice and guidance or that which does not counter the prevailing prejudices within society. Those in positions of influence and power in education have inevitably little or no direct experience of these vocational areas having come through the traditional academic route i.e. GCE’A’ level /degree and then direct into education. In fact the vocational education and training system is seen by all the key players and even the learners themselves as confusing because:

  • Teachers are often unable to provide professionally informed advice and guidance to the learners.
  • Employers experience difficulties in assessing the value of the multitude of vocational qualifications that exist and too often experience problems gauging the applicants ability and employment potential
  • Parents who continue to strongly influence their children’s choice and are often captives of their own educational background
  • College and University admission tutors experience problems trying to map the so-called equivalence of the multitude of vocational qualifications
  • The learners often have insufficient access to impartial, up to date and informed information, advice and guidance about courses and careers
  • There is little recognition that many vocational qualifications can be as economically rewarding as academic awards and more aptly lend themselves to developing one’s own business – these qualifications possess relevance


    The false perception that these lowly viewed vocations do not include knowledge and cognition aspects – there is a misapprehension that the manual/physical aspects of the job over-ride the intellectual/cerebral and many sadly still imagine that understanding, cognitive and cerebral aspects are marginal and it’s all about brawn over brain! Hence they are lowly valued vocations.

The situation has not been helped by the ever changing nature of the vocational qualifications themselves when compared with the academic qualifications. The latter have remained relatively unchanged for many decades. Another element that has held back any major reform of all qualifications is the obsession with curriculum frameworks and the concept of distinct qualification and occupational pathways or routes. Over the recent past we have had academic/general, general vocational, vocational, work-based etc qualifications and frameworks. This approach surely reinforces the perceived hierarchy of qualification and occupations and has in turn given rise to a plethora of terms e.g. craft, trade, operative, technician, technologist, professional and chartered et al.

Also there is a multitude of vocational qualifications that have been subjected to numerous reforms and this in turn has caused confusion and uncertainty as to their value to employers and other stake holders and end users. Interesting to note there are more HE degree titles than vocational qualifications but this is never highlighted in the debates!

Relevance is a very useful concept when describing vocational qualifications that are lowly perceived as they do more readily lend themselves to setting up one’s own business and offer greater opportunities to earn a living post-qualification. Sadly the usefulness of qualifications to the individual and the idea of constantly renewed economy through positive attitudes and values in relation to vocationalism hardly gets a look-in. Those who take the vocational route are tacitly or openly regarded as ‘uncultured’ -a classic response in a class ridden society!

Final comment
The major and fundamental issues are about the perception by society coupled with the ignorance, misunderstandings and inherent problems associated with vocational education and training qualifications and occupations. Essentially it is the issues associated with the social status of the occupations that the students have prepared and studied for.

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