Playing the field: Imagining the TAFE degree as a new point of distinction

Year: 2012

Author: Hodge, Steven, Gale, Trevor, Rawolle, Shaun

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Institutes of Technical and Further Education (TAFEs) are public providers of vocational education and training (VET) in Australia. For decades sharp boundaries have been maintained between the VET and higher education sectors in Australia; boundaries marked by significant differences in their governance, funding and curriculum structures. A traditional difference has been between the level of qualifications offered in each sector, with the VET sector specialising in lower level certificate and diploma qualifications, and the higher education sector offering bachelor degrees and post-graduate qualifications. In recent years, however, TAFEs have started to offer bachelor degrees, signalling a challenge to the status quo. As well as new entrants (institutions and their students) in the higher education field, there are also new entries (new disciplines such as 'fashion' and 'hospitality'). In this paper we survey the field of higher education and trace the emergence of TAFE bachelor degrees within it. We consider recent shifts in Australian government policy toward the promotion of a 'unified' or 'interconnected' tertiary education sector as a way to account for the changes we are witnessing. We conclude that while the policy shift helps to justify some recent growth in provision of TAFE degrees, it is clear that the phenomenon of TAFE degrees predates the policy and is not strictly occurring because of it. Drawing on a case study of one Victorian TAFE to illustrate these shifts, we trace the history of the TAFE bachelor degree back more than a decade and reflect on the conditions surrounding their advent. We propose that the concept of 'distinction', both in its ordinary and Bourdieuian sense, provides a useful frame for understanding the emergence and trajectory of TAFE degrees. Conditions with their origins in the 'Training Reform Era', which transformed Australian VET from a public-provider dominated system into a field of competition, help to account for the search for markers of distinction by TAFEs. But within a changing higher education landscape, TAFE degrees hold significances beyond those generated by earlier position taking within the VET sector. Using Bourdieu's concepts of distinction and field and Taylor's 'social imaginary', we examine the meaning of TAFE degrees in the contemporary higher education field in Australia and confront the question of the nature of field that these degrees occupy. In doing so we consider the potential of understanding these changes as "unified" or interconnected fields of higher education.