Education

A question of culture as well as structure

1 Nov 2010, by test test

IGNORING the entrenched prejudices of further and higher education can lead to divorce.

IN 2004, Thames Valley University, a former English polytechnic based in west London, merged with Reading College, a further education institution (or TAFE). The merger was historic, creating England’s first dual-sector university.

The talk was about providing seamless transition from further to higher education, intended to help widen access and reduce inequality as a result.

Yet, earlier this year, just six years later, came the announcement that further education at Reading had been divested.

The dual-sector experiment had been abandoned and TVU would be changing its name to the University of West London.

The conclusion of TVU’s dalliance with a dual-sector identity coincides with discussions in Australia about how the five dual-sector universities here — Ballarat, Swinburne, RMIT, Victoria and Charles Darwin — can be made more cohesive and effective. This is the goal of the federally funded dual-sector collaboration project, led by Ballarat and Swinburne, an inaugural forum for which will be held in Melbourne this week.

What lessons can be learned from the TVU experiment?

The first, and most important one, is paying regard to the evidence of what works. When I started working for TVU in 2004, soon after the merger, it was clear that key decisions were being made without reference to the dual sectors in Australia or similar institutions elsewhere. Had this evidence been heeded TVU might not have chosen to create a single academic board and integrate further and higher education staff into the existing university faculties.

This big-bang approach made sense as a symbolic gesture but ignored the power of the entrenched cultures (and prejudices) of the two sectors. In reality, the integration was resisted on both sides and at subject level considerable separation was maintained.

A discussion paper produced by Ballarat and Swinburne shows that in Australia not one institution appears committed to an overall integrated structure. Why? While some dual sectors have tried a more integrated approach in the past (such as RMIT), the paper puts its demise down to worries about the loss of the distinctive identity of TAFE as well as some local issues, often involving the capacity, or not, of individuals to work co-operatively (read academic snobbery).

Snobbish attitudes were rife at TVU. Further education staff felt excluded by the language of higher education and the cultural norms of university committees.

Yet many would have preferred to have been absorbed into a more elite institution. Some continued to encourage further students within TVU to apply to attend better known universities. So much for internal student progression from further to higher education.

This stubbornly showed little sign of improvement. In turn, higher education staff felt the institution’s dual-sector status threatened their professional identity as academics, even though only a minority were research active and probably had more in common with staff from the former Reading College than Oxbridge. However, self-image is everything and hard to change.

Academic snobbery tends to result in a process known as academic drift. Here, institutions mimic the patterns and practices of more successful or elite comparators, which is why many of the great English civic and American land-grant universities drifted away from their founding intentions to provide access-based technical and vocational education.

Academic drift is nothing new and oft repeated, such as in the 1970s when the polytechnics began to ape the curriculum and ingrained practices of Oxbridge.

A similar challenge faces the dual sectors. In British Columbia, Canada, a number of community colleges have been converted into university colleges and have now become universities. These institutions face a battle to retain their commitment to TAFE and avoid becoming simply wannabe research universities.

It is also important to consider the student perspective in all of this. Students based in Reading did not see studying higher education courses many kilometres away as a local option, instead regarding TVU’s competitors, such as Oxford Brookes University, as more convenient.

Moreover, the lack of a university environment at the Reading campus, where there was no student bar, for instance, fell short of their expectations.

The TVU story is a salutary reminder of how difficult it is to change the system. Despite the blurring of the divide between TAFEs and universities in terms of their curriculum, there are still different sets of operating assumptions about fundamental purposes, quality assurance regimes and career tracks for staff. Streamlining the regulatory differences between the sectors will help but won’t resolve the cultural issues.

To quote Neil Garrod, former deputy vice-chancellor of TVU, “institutional structure is a question not simply of structure but of culture”. We ignore this reality at our peril.

Bruce Macfarlane, associate professor for higher education at the University of Hong Kong, will speak at the inaugural Dual Sector Forum in Melbourne on Thursday and Friday.

———————–
Dr Bruce Macfarlane, Associate Professor of Higher Education, The University of Hong Kong & Senior Fellow, UK Higher Education Academy will be speaking at the Inaugural Dual Sector Forum.

The Inaugural Dual Sector Forum is the only event to specifically address the collaborative links and cohesion between the HE and VET sectors.

Date: 28th & 29th October 2010
Venue: Rendezvous Hotel, Melbourne
For more information, go to www.informa.com.au/dualsector

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