Academic identity in a changing Australian higher education space: the higher education in vocational institution perspective.

Year: 2018

Author: Sinclair, Alice, Hodge, Steven, Knight, Elizabeth, Rawolle, Shawn, Susan, Webb

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Globally, as governments pursue their economic and equity agendas in widening access to higher education (HE), new types of non-university providers of undergraduate programs are entering the HE space.  This study focuses on the Australian context, on Australian Technical and Further Education Institutions (TAFEs) as providers of higher education, and is located in debates on the equity impacts of opening up the higher education space. A key concern is whether an expanded HE system with new institutional players results in better vocational outcomes for students from disadvantaged equity groups (horizontal differentiation) or exacerbates existing institutional hierarchies and inequalities between students (vertical stratification) (Brennan and Naidoo 2008). Central to these debates is whether these new providers have the capacity, the human and knowledge capital, to fully engage in the space. 
This paper explores the capacity of these new higher education providers by researching the academic identity and institutional culture of those providing Bachelor qualifications within the TAFE system. It is part of a broader three-year research project seeking to understand the social equity implications of the expansion of vocational institutions into the HE sector. We look at the ways tensions in the delivery of higher education by these institutions might play-out in educators’ aspirations and understandings of their roles, positioned against their conceptualisations of academic identity.
A case study approach was adopted and the paper draws on 7 individual educator interviews from 4 Australian non-university institutions offering HE programs. Using a discourse analysis approach, we explored the construction of academic identities positioned against the benchmarking categories presented by Feather (2010). Since there is little research on higher education in vocational institution in Australia, we drew on HE and English Further Education Colleges (FECs) research. This literature arguesthat institutions operating in the HE space need to engage with research activities, to support the formation of knowledge necessary for HE pedagogy and to foster the intellectual development of educators and students.   
Our research brings into focus tensions arising from cultural shifts as the institution operates within a new educational space and offers insights into the valuing of particular forms of knowledge and pedagogy implicated in delivering undergraduate programs. Our findings suggest institutional cultural tensions play out through beliefs and valuing of specific educator roles, against understandings of academic identity, and that reflection on institutional culture has a role in delivering HE programs that may support equity and positive institutional and graduate outcomes.Alice