Gavin Moodie (Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada)
Leesa Wheelahan (Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada)

Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning

ISSN: 2042-3896

Article publication date: 9 February 2015



Moodie, G. and Wheelahan, L. (2015), "Introduction", Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, Vol. 5 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited


Article Type: Introduction From: Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, Volume 5, Issue 1.

Introduction to higher level vocational skills – part 1: contexts and issues arising from higher level vocational skills offered by colleges

Higher education is changing around the world. Changing demographics, technologies, competitive global markets and the pursuit of sustained employability in difficult economic times all generate an interest from employers and employees alike in maintaining high levels of technical skills. This demand for higher level skills to equip employers and employees for success in a global modern economy is stimulating fundamental reviews of the purpose of higher education and its role in providing highly skilled individuals. Identifying those skills and placing them alongside traditional and accepted forms of higher education is challenging existing providers. It is also encouraging new entrants to higher education – both of providers and students of learning.

These new requirements are challenging traditional divisions between colleges that traditionally offer vocational education and universities that offer higher education. Many colleges that previously focused on vocational education now find that they are increasingly required to offer higher education to meet the rising knowledge and skill requirements of students, industry and the community. It is clear that colleges are required to offer higher level programmes to meet these needs, as the knowledge and skill demands of jobs change. However, there is debate over how to characterise this provision. Is it higher vocational education, vocational higher education, applied higher education or just higher education? Does this provision differ from that offered in universities and should it differ?

Sharing these challenges led to collaboration between two groups of colleges which offer both vocational and higher education: the Mixed Economy Group MEG of 41 English colleges of further education which offer higher education and Technical and Further Education TAFE Directors Australia, the peak national body representing Australia’s 58 government-owned TAFE institutes and university TAFE divisions many of which also offer higher education programmes, and the Australia-Pacific Technical College. As a part of their collaboration the groups have sponsored a Special Issue of the journal of Higher Education, Skills and Work-based Learning led by Leesa Wheelahan to examine the place of higher level vocational skills offered by colleges.

Colleges have offered higher education for many decades, concentrating on practice based higher education which has a close relation with local employers and occupational bodies designing and delivering higher level vocational skills. The aim of the Special Issue of the journal is to identify the benefits of such provision, illuminate good practice and share problems and potential solutions internationally. We are delighted that the responses to the invitation for contributions to the Special Issue were so enthusiastic and strong that the Special Issue is spread over two issues of the journal. We accepted contributions from Australia, Canada and England. While most contributions reflect the circumstances and issues of the country and indeed the institution of their origin, they are remarkable in the extent to which those issues are shared by many other institutions in other countries.

This first part of the Special Issue explores the contexts and issues arising from higher level vocational skills offered by colleges. One of the issues confronting colleges’ offering of qualifications traditionally associated with universities is the extent to which they adopt – or conform to – the concepts and norms developed and replicated in universities over centuries, and the extent to which colleges introduce new ideas and modes to higher vocational provision. This issue is considered by Jonathan Eaton in his paper on conceptualising scholarship within college-based higher education. Eaton starts with Boyer’s 1990 prominent four scholarships, although of course they were addressed mainly to universities. Eaton also builds on another concept borrowed from universities, that of the civic university, to develop a role for colleges in community-engaged scholarship. In their paper arguing a case for scholarly activity in vocational education in Australia, Waters and her colleagues draw on the literature to argue for the importance of research and inquiry as practices for new times in vocational education and training. They provide empirical examples of research and inquiry at a national, institutional and local level and elaborate their value to vocational education and training’s stakeholders. Waters and her colleagues conclude with proposals for how practice-based scholarly activities might be fostered and sustained.

A rapidly changing role leads to changing or at least challenging established identities, which is considered by Arti Saraswat in her paper on managing organisational culture and identity in a dual sector college. In findings eerily similar to our own about higher education in TAFE five years earlier Wheelahan et al., 2009, Saraswat observed issues with enhancing students’ internal progression from further to higher education, “pressures for separate and distinctive buildings and spaces for HE to help raise student aspirations”, and internal and external stakeholders’ perception of the college’s “confused” institutional identity. While Saraswat considered the identity of institutions, Jane Davis considers the identity of students in her paper examining the impact of role identity on student expectations. Davis argues that student role identity, its dimensions and salience strongly affect students’ expectations of college-based higher education in the UK.

In their paper on Aboriginal student strength to persist and Indigenous Knowledges IK in community colleges Elizabeth Erwin and Linda Muzzin raise the issue of which concept of scholarship, role and identity should be adopted by students and teachers. They conclude that:

Once at the college, Aboriginal students must navigate the differences in pedagogical practices between Native and non-Native faculty. They must especially face the absence of a spiritual dimension which is the heart and soul of IK. Education, according to Aboriginal Elders, should be built on empowerment, not “adaptation.” It is this empowerment that emancipates students to learn and to exercise their learning within their epistemology. In this way, it is advocated that a welcoming spiritual dimension will extend beyond Aboriginal centers into the curricula and into the spirit of the college.

Madeleine King, Arti Saraswat and John Widdowson report the experiences of students studying higher education part time in English further education colleges, whose numbers have almost halved between 2010-2011 and 2013-2014. They report contradictory government policy, a steep decline in employer contributions to fees, distinctive needs and expectations of part time students and how they are not always met by colleges. Nonetheless, King, Saraswat and Widdowson are optimistic that colleges have the elements of a successful system for part time students.

Extending the consideration of students’ experiences, Laura A. Thorsell discusses students’ engagement in their studies. She describes the factors that build intrinsic motivation: self-determination, social interaction and leadership. While Thorsell is particularly concerned with graduate certificates, a distinctive qualification, her discussion is readily applicable to other programmes.

In the last paper in this part of the Special Issue Peter K. McGregor’s paper on student engagement and enhancement through research and scholarship reports five case studies of student scholarly activity working with potential employers and outside professionals. The case studies reflect the college’s diverse engagement with its community: responding to government public consultations, research-based tropical fieldwork, development of voluntary marine conservation area, surf competition and conference events, and volunteering with a hosted local action group. McGregor concludes that:

[…]all five case studies show a level of student independence often thought to characterize HE; most students appeared to relish independence and the staff confidence in student abilities it implied. The comments of external examiners support our judgments of the quality of the student experience in these case studies and often identified the approach taken as best practice.

The second part of this Special Issue will include a number of papers on the distinctive contributions that colleges offer to higher education: their close links with their community and their consequent emphasis on developing graduates’ employability skills.

Gavin Moodie and Leesa Wheelahan

Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada


Boyer, E.L. 1990, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Princeton, NJ, available at: accessed 6 March 2011.

Wheelahan, L., Moodie, G., Billett, S. and Kelly, A. (2009), Higher Education in TAFE, National Centre for Vocational Education Research, Adelaide, available at: accessed 24 February 2012.

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