Rethinking associations between students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and their aspirations for higher education: the case of higher vocational education degrees

Year: 2019

Author: Parker, Stephen, Knight, Elizabeth, Gale, Trevor, Webb, Susan

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper examines Bachelor degree offerings from government-owned vocational institutions in Australia. In contrast to higher vocational education settings in many parts of Europe (Graf 2013), in Australia vocational education has historically lower status than higher education (HE). More latterly however, there has been an increase in vocational institutions providing bachelor degrees (Webb et al. 2017) although still constituting a small proportion of the sector (Gale et al. 2013).

Using Appadurai (2004) and building on existing work (Henderson 2018; Bathmaker 2016), we identify a new emerging group in relation to aspirations for HE. Traditionally, the literature tends to consider two aspirational groups: those with ‘high’ aspirations for HE, contrasted with those from disadvantaged backgrounds often positioned as having no aspirations for HE (e.g. Archer et al 2007). We identify a third group that draws on a different ‘archive of experience’ and aspirational capacities (Appadurai 2004), privileging subject content over institutional status in pursuing HE and the careers that flow.

While the literature associates HE participation and socioeconomic status, drawing on a current project involving researchers from both Australia and the UK and focused on higher education in public vocational institutions, we argue that this association is less clear. Our data from 42 student interviews and a survey of 463 individuals suggests that students who choose higher vocational education (HIVE) as their first preference draw on different archives of experience, which tend to privilege the subject content of their degrees and their utility in the labour market, over the positional value of the institutions they attend. This challenges the view that vocational education is often regarded as a last resort if aspirations for university are thwarted. It also questions governments’ view (in the UK, Australia and elsewhere) that vocational education is an alternative to university or a pathway to university for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We argue that the association between HIVE participation and familial traditions of higher education is less clear than it is for traditional university participation in Australia. Specifically, we identify previous experience with post-secondary education and particularly an expressed interest in the subject matter drawing on conceptions of occupational outcomes as particular characteristics of their archives of experience. We conclude that students in the research are ‘cartographers’ in that they are not following established aspirational routes, but are constructing their own routes to their preferred occupational destinations.