GLOBAL: Structuring tertiary education

There are two broad patterns or tendencies in structuring tertiary education. Some countries meet the different needs of different students, employers and of society generally by structuring sectors and institutions to serve specific needs, most commonly to establish vocational institutes to specialise in developing skills for employment and higher education institutions to provide general education and education for the high-status, high-paying occupations.

This tendency, which is most associated with Germany and other countries of northern continental Europe, sharply differentiates and separates vocational education from higher education in organisation, curriculum and student groups.

In these systems, students enter a vocational or academic education track towards the upper level of secondary education and proceed along that track to a vocational or higher education tertiary institution and thence to an occupation specific to their vocational or higher education track. These systems are therefore often known as 'tracked' systems.

Another tendency has been to seek to accommodate more diverse needs by giving institutions and sectors broader, more general roles. Institutions are structured into sectors that have different emphases and orientations, but this is within a generalist framework.

Students in the generalist systems may defer their choice between vocational and academic routes later than in the tracked systems, often until after compulsory schooling. Even after embarking on a vocational or academic route, students in the generalist systems often can transfer readily between routes without a big loss of progress.

This is the pattern in many Anglophone countries - Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US. In these countries the vocational and higher education sectors and institutions merge and overlap considerably. As Dorotea Furth argued, both strategies accommodate diversity but in structurally different ways.

These patterns in tertiary education provision coincide with two patterns for structuring economies and their relationship with tertiary education, described by Hall and Soskice as the contrast between coordinated market economies and liberal market economies. Northern continental Europe tends to have market economies which are coordinated by their social partners: governments at national and regional levels, business and labour.

Vocational and higher education students might be placed on quite separate post-compulsory education tracks, but the coordinated market economy matches graduates and job vacancies for most. These systems have a sufficiently stable labour market to encourage enterprises and employees to invest heavily in vocationally specific skills.

The market economies of the Anglophone countries are rather more fluid, relying more on the market to sort and match graduates and employment. In liberal market economies, formal vocational education concentrates more on general skills because companies are loath to invest in apprenticeships that impart skills valuable throughout an industry since they have no guarantee that other firms will not poach their apprentices without investing in training themselves. Liberal market economies also place more responsibility on students and workers to suit themselves to the needs of current and prospective employers.

Workers facing short job tenures and fluid and unpredictable labour markets therefore prefer general vocational education since career success depends on acquiring the general skills that can be used in many different firms. Greater mobility between vocational and higher education give students more flexibility to match their education with employment opportunities as they arise.

Coordinated and liberal market economies are also likely to value qualifications differently. This may be illustrated by adopting a distinction from Marx and comparing the use value and exchange value of a qualification, or more precisely of the labour power of someone who holds a qualification.

The use value of a commodity is its utility in satisfying a need or want of a member of a society. This is different from a commodity's exchange value, which is the quantity of other commodities the commodity may be traded for. A commodity's price is the more or less accurate monetary expression of its exchange value.

Employers in a coordinated market economy are reasonably closely involved in the production of qualifications. They therefore have a reasonably good idea of the use value of the labour power of someone who holds a qualification, subject to the natural variations in people's personality, aptitude and application. There is therefore likely to be a reasonably good alignment between a qualification's use value and exchange value in a coordinated market economy.

In contrast, employers in the liberal market economy are less involved in the production of qualifications. They are therefore less certain of the use value of the labour power of someone who holds a qualification.

Employers in a liberal market economy will therefore tend to discount the wages they pay to a new employee with a qualification not only for the uncertainty in their personality, aptitude and application, but they will further discount the wages they pay to a new qualified employee for the uncertainty in the use value of their qualification.

There is therefore likely in general to be a bigger gap between the exchange value and the use value of qualifications in a liberal market economy than in a coordinated market economy. In particular, employers in a liberal market economy are in general likely to under--price qualifications, leading to both employees and employers under-investing in training.

Performance in the highly differentiated and tracked systems of tertiary education is optimised when there is a good match of students, sectors and society's needs. In these systems, large numbers of students transferring between vocational and higher education indicate a failure of the system to place students on the appropriate track initially.

In contrast, high rates of student transfer in the generalist systems may indicate that they are working well in providing students with the flexibility to change routes as their interests and perception of labour force demand change.

For countries that preserve elite universities by providing mass access to vocational education institutions, ready transfer from vocational to the top tier of higher education is essential to maintain equality of opportunity and social mobility. While students who do not gain direct access to the top tier of higher education are streamed out of the level of education that is best resourced and gives the best access to jobs with high salaries and status, this is often justified by noting that students may transfer from the mass and lower funded tiers to the top elite tier of higher education.

Burton Clark observed that the lower tier is both a screen and a route to access the upper tier. Clark Kerr insisted that "for the sake of equality of opportunity in a segmented system, it is essential that highly successful students, with appropriate academic backgrounds, be able to move from one segment to a segment or segments at a higher level, as we provided in the Californian master plan and increasingly also elsewhere".

Ready student transfer is also often said to give students who leave school early or who do not perform well in secondary education a 'second chance' to prepare for or start higher education in an institution that provides more student learning support. High upward student transfer thus indicates or of the success of these systems.

There is a fast developing international trend to establish qualifications frameworks to represent the relations between types of qualification. Qualifications frameworks are developed by governments to support the coordination, correspondence, coherence, integration or harmonization of alternative, sometimes competing, qualifications.

These are sometimes introduced as part of a wider systematisation or reorganisation of education, but, more commonly recently, to show students and employers the relations between qualifications. For whatever reasons they are introduced, qualifications frameworks seek to relate qualifications that had hitherto not been widely related, often because the qualifications are in different domains, are of different types, are offered by different types of institution or are achieved after completing different pathways or programmes.

Tuck charts the accelerating introduction of national qualifications frameworks in three stages. In the first generation which started between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s were Australia, England and Northern Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland and South Africa.

The second generation started from the late to the early 2000s and comprised Ireland, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Mexico, Namibia, the Philippines, Singapore, Trinidad and Tobago and Wales.

Some 24 countries are in the third generation, which are currently considering introducing national qualifications frameworks. These include Brazil, China and some smaller countries of Europe, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition, regional qualifications frameworks are being developed in the Caribbean, European Union, Pacific Islands and the Southern African Development Community.

All the countries that established a qualifications framework in the first phase have a liberal market economy - Australia, England and Northern Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland and South Africa - and most of those that established a qualifications framework in the second phase also have a liberal market economy.

Conversely, the countries with a strongly coordinated market economy - such as Germany, the Scandinavian countries, France and other countries of northern continental Europe - do not have a qualifications framework and, further, are not contemplating one.

This reflects the importance of qualifications in sorting and matching graduates and employment in liberal market economies and hence the utility of a qualifications framework in establishing a 'common currency' or medium of exchange between qualifications and between qualifications and employment opportunities.

But in coordinated market economies this sorting and matching is done by the education systems and employer groups cooperatively, often tracking students from a relatively young age.

Qualifications frameworks are one of several mechanisms that some countries are building to try to harmonise or at least improve the articulation of vocational and higher education.

While it is important for countries with liberal market economies to minimise the barriers to students transferring between the sectors, it is futile to attempt to merge vocational and higher education to form a 'seamless fabric' of tertiary education as some have urged.

Vocational education is closely engaged with industries and reflects the dynamics of the industries it serves. Higher education also serves the economies and industries that sustain it, some institutions and systems more directly than others. But even the most vocationally-oriented higher education institutions reflect the dynamics of disciplines and the research that develops them.

Vocational and higher education's most important engagements are not with each other but with their own dynamics: vocational education with industries and higher education with the academic disciplines. While it may be possible with the investment of considerable time and effort to merge vocational education in a jurisdiction at a particular time, the different dynamics of vocational and higher education will drive them in different directions.

Rather than maintain continuously the big investment needed to keep the sectors merged, it is better to allow the sectors to respond to their own dynamics and maintain the links between them.

*This is an edited extract of From Vocational to Higher Education: An international perspective by Gavin Moodie, published by McGraw Hill in 2008 and reproduced with the kind permission of Open University Press-McGraw-Hill Education. References are available from the author,, a policy analyst at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.