Theorising with Bourdieu and Bernstein to understand vocational institution degrees in a high participation system

Year: 2019

Author: Rawolle, Shaun, Hodge, Steven, Webb, Susan, Knight, Elizabeth

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper frames the symposium which discusses the work of the ARC project ‘Vocational Institutions, Undergraduate Degrees, Distinction or Inequality’. We bring Bourdieu’s (1984) theory of distinction to bear on the question of preferences for types of higher education institution and higher education qualification. Although he offered a powerful analysis of education and reproduction in a separate study, we find that his account of distinction that originally concerned the field of art facilitates analysis of choice among competing types of tertiary provision. Bourdieu’s theory requires artefacts that can be effectively analysed in terms of representations and objects. But in an era of marketised education, the fluidity of preferences invites a different theoretical framework, one that acknowledges a dimension of ‘taste’ for understanding decisions to invest in education.

We turn to the work of Bernstein (1975) for tools to approach higher education as a field in which the analysis in terms of taste (Bourdieu’s focus) can gain traction. In his sociology, Bernstein dealt with reproduction, but envisaged a situation in which the ‘signalling’ function of education was an important factor in teasing out its role in reproduction. Bernstein drew on conceptual tools of communications theory and his sociology of education often employs the language of ‘transmissions’, ‘messages’, ‘signs’ and ‘symbols’. Bernstein’s research creates conceptual space for dealing with education representational terms (a central idea in Bourdieu’s theory of distinction).

We pursue this analysis using national statistical data and new quantitative and qualitative data collected to explore the fields operating across the HE system between vocational institution [VI] and the universities in the ‘line of sight’ for students who have taken the VI pathway. Bachelor degrees in previously predominantly vocational institutions such as TAFE [VIs] emerge as a new point of distinction in the higher education field, offering benefits that resonate with changes in the market for degrees. Degrees in this provider type potentially alter the structure of the higher education field, disturbing the established order and changing the rules of the game. Bernstein’s concept of ‘message systems’ is drawn on to nuance Bourdieu’s theory of distinction in the context of the Australian tertiary landscape. Attention is thus drawn to messages associated with teaching, curriculum and assessment in VIs that help us to examine the action of these providers in reconfiguring distinction. The analysis presented hints at a redefinition of what makes a degree distinctive.