The Practical Work of Scholarship in Australian Technical and Further Education Institutions

Ms Fleur Goulding and Professor Terri Seddon
Holmesglen Institute and Monash University


In the contemporary Australian educational landscape, the boundaries between the school, vocational, and higher education sectors have blurred, with providers vertically integrating their programmes into sectors outside their traditional scope of delivery. Schools and universities now deliver vocational education programmes, and Vocational Education and Training (VET) providers, including private organisations and Australia’s public technical and further education institutes (TAFE), deliver accredited qualifications to senior-secondary school students. VET providers have also begun to develop and deliver bachelor and two-year associate degree qualifications. In the Australian context, these providers are not self-accrediting but do have the power to award their own higher education qualifications. They are often referred to as mixed-sector providers (Moodie, 2012).

Higher-education-delivering TAFE institutions are growing in number and shifting their strategic priorities to support their higher education provision, including developing a culture of scholarship. Yet teaching staff are confronting a series of tensions created by epistemological, pedagogical, industrial and institutional conditions as they straddle the two sectors (Kelly, Wheelahan & Billet, 2009). While universities have time-honoured traditions and established definitions of scholarship and research, scholarly activity has not been an expectation of TAFE staff. While an architecture for building research capacity in VET providers has developed in Australia (NCVER, 2013), it remains challenging to increase the pool of experienced researchers available to the field (Bartram, Stanwick & Loveder, 2010).

Running parallel to internal reconfigurations within VET providers are the external forces shaping scholarly practice at these sites. Non-self-accrediting institutions, such as TAFE institutes, demonstrate their capacity to deliver higher education and have their courses judged for accreditation against nationally regulated standards. They also commit to audit by the federal regulator. This regulatory agency espouses official notions of scholarship and research, which influences the internal policies and procedures of these providers, which in turn cuts to the core of teachers’ work.

While there are official notions and expectations of scholarship embodied in policy, regulatory arrangements, and institutional resources, higher education teachers in TAFE are working to position themselves within this broader environment (Wheelahan, Moodie, Billet & Kelly, 2009). Moodie (2012) further argues that the difficulties that TAFE institutions have in adequately addressing the scholarship requirements of higher education are partly because “there is no clear understanding of what such scholarship might be” (p. 3). In an attempt to define what is distinctive about scholarship in TAFE, this small-scale case study explored the ways the official definition and the practical work of scholarship is developing in this context. We sought to understand the policy position and regulatory expectations and how higher education teachers in TAFE conceptualise and enact scholarship, contrasting these with the official position to expose the dissonances and ways teachers negotiated the space between.


The methodology for this study considers one set of resources that establish external expectations for scholarship in VET providers and contrasts these with teachers’ commentaries about their scholarly practice. We use a case study approach comprising two data collection methods:

1. A document analysis of key regulatory documentation and the reports of three quality audits of TAFE institutes, which frame the emerging official definition of scholarship in VET.

2. Interviews with three higher education teachers to reveal the distinctive orientations they have towards scholarship and the ways scholarship is developing at the case site.

The main documentation framing higher education quality assurance and regulation in Australia at the time of the study was selected for analysis. This included the National Protocols for Higher Education Approvals Processes (MCEETYA, 2007a), the National Guidelines for Higher Education Approval Processes that relate to non-self-accrediting institutions (MCEETYA, 2007b) and the reports of three TAFE institutions audited by the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA, 2009a, 2009b & 2010b), together with the Audit Manual (AUQA, 2010a). While the protocols no longer have regulatory authority in Australia since the establishment of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, the core elements of the current Higher Education Standards Framework have been largely drawn from the preceding protocols. The national protocols and the findings of early higher education quality audits of TAFE institutes are also significant for their historical influence over the establishment of mixed-sector provision in Australia.

The selected documentation covered a broad range of aspects concerning the regulatory requirements and performance of TAFE institutions as higher education providers. Therefore, the first stage of the document analysis was to isolate the sections that specifically related to expectations around scholarship. These extracts were reviewed and notated in stages, using a content analysis approach (Babbie, 2010). General observations and preliminary meanings were identified on the first reading. The content was then coded and recoded as analysis progressed. Initial readings identified four core ways of understanding or reporting on scholarship within the content and this structure formed the basis of the coding scheme, which was refined and expanded into sub-themes during subsequent analyses.

A Melbourne metropolitan TAFE institution was selected as the case site and is referred to as Metro Institute within this article. Metro Institute is one of the larger public VET providers in the state of Victoria and an early entrant into higher education delivery. Teachers at the site were made aware of the nature of the study, the data that was to be collected and how it was to be used before they voluntarily agreed to participate. All Metro Institute teachers expressing an interest in participating in the study were interviewed and the interviews audio-recorded and transcribed. The interview participants were anonymised as far as possible by de-identifying them and the organisation through the use of pseudonyms, which ensured confidentiality during and after the research process.

In all, three teaching staff from Metro’s higher education programmes agreed to be interviewed for this study. Two interviewees occupied teaching-only positions and the third held an academic leadership role combined with a teaching load, as the head of a degree programme. Together, they taught across three degree programmes – two within the visual/performing arts field and the other within the sciences. They represented a mixture of part-time and full-time teaching staff and their prior working experience and qualifications varied greatly. Two had PhD qualifications, and one had prior experience as the head of a university teaching department. None of the teachers had worked in TAFE prior to their recruitment to Metro, although their prior teaching experience included school, university and industry-based educational settings.

Punch (2005) identifies issues of generalisability as a common criticism or perceived limitation of case studies. Clearly this is a single case, with a small number of participants. The scope of this research also limited the extent to which internal and external documentation and reports could be analysed. However, while this study was designed to give insight into wider issues of scholarship in VET, it is a preliminary exploratory work into how the meaning and practice of scholarship is developing in Australian TAFE institutes. We wanted to identify the questions that need to be asked to better understand the context in which scholarship in VET providers is situated and the scholarly practices that are being developed. We also sought to establish the potential for further and larger studies.


The policy and regulatory position

The most definitive conceptualisation of what constitutes scholarship is provided in the glossary accompanying the National Protocols (MCEETYA, 2007a). The protocols make a distinction between scholarship and research. Research is characterised by originality and has investigation as its primary objective. The outcome of research is new or increased knowledge of “humans, culture and society” (MCEETYA, 2007a, p. 18). Scholarship is defined by listing activities it typically involves. It is solely directed towards teaching and learning, including “demonstrating current subject knowledge, keeping abreast of the literature, encouraging students to be critical and creative thinkers, being committed to ongoing development of teaching practice and demonstrating an ongoing intellectual engagement in primary and allied disciplines” (p. 19).

The document analysis, however, revealed that more nuanced meanings of and positions on scholarships were circulating within these policy and regulatory framings. Through the content analysis of the selected regulatory documents, we concluded that the official view of scholarship is:

Teacher identities and definitions of scholarship

Metro’s higher education teaching staff demonstrate a merging of connections to the practice of their profession in industry contexts, their role as teacher, and the scholarly traditions of their disciplines, but with different priorities. The issue of connections to professional practice and industry was very important for the teaching-only staff in particular. Both teachers articulated strong sentiments about the importance of being able to “do what you teach” and that staff should be current in their professional experience. They state:

To teach in higher education you must have some industry behind you. You must be up to date with what’s happening in industry and have industry contacts for your area.
Teacher, science

I feel I’ve got so much experience, basically I’m giving them [students] on a plate what I wish I’d been given at their age … I feel that’s an important thing that I have, the currency, and I’ve sort of worked out a lot of stuff.
Teacher, performing arts

However, the head of a higher education programme described his role primarily in the context of his engagement with the academic discipline and being ‘known’ for his work in the field. He comments:

Musicians tend to be more purist I think, engaged with the discipline. Most of us would see ourselves as composers who teach, musicians who teach …. not as teachers. Whereas in other fields you might find people saying ‘I’m actually an economics teacher and occasionally I publish an article’.
Head of Programme

In considering how they conceptualised their roles as scholars, all interviewees made reference to scholarship as supporting their own learning. All three make observations around the need for scholarship to be prioritised if Metro values its higher education staff’s continuing education and learning. In elaborating on how scholarship informs teaching practice, interviewees made statements about teachers learning while teaching. As one interviewee succinctly stated, “good teachers say they learn like their students and students with good teachers learn together”. Two interviewees in particular used strongly worded expressions to articulate the importance of the connection between scholarship and lifelong learning for staff and students. These ranged from positive perspectives of scholarship enabling inspired teaching when staff remain engaged in learning and exploring the vast field of their discipline, to the converse, i.e. when staff stop learning they “may as well shrivel up and die”.

The official discourse and the teachers’ commentaries were in clear agreement regarding the centrality of scholarship to teaching and learning in higher education. Both hold that the connection between scholarship and teaching is what sets higher education apart from VET with regard to its role in informing higher education curriculum and teaching practice and also from the perspective of the role and work expectations of teachers. However, there are dissonances between the views of the quality agency auditors and teachers on how scholarship can be understood in VET environments. AUQA’s understanding of the structure of knowledge and how that affects the practice of knowledge generation and application is primarily framed as a disciplinary notion. While the teachers at Metro also tend to define scholarly activities within a disciplinary framework and the particularities and traditions of their academic field, they do stress the importance of more applied ways of knowing through the practice of their profession. All three staff interviewed were unequivocal that professional practice and the generation and application of knowledge in a vocational context was an important feature of their programmes and their approach to scholarship and teaching. As one interviewee states:

It’s [scholarship] about what our institutes are into, which is diversity, student engagement and connection with industry … because this is an applied degree, teachers have to be able to do what they talk about.

The practice of scholarship

The analysis of interview data suggests that teachers and managers are exercising their agentic capacities to make sense of the organisational space they occupy and create hybrid scholarly cultures. This space is described by higher education teachers as predominantly managerial and exhibiting a lack of scholarly structures and values that they hold as important and necessary. The perceptions of the interviewees were that managers at the site saw work as productive if it aligned to existing VET paradigms about teaching and the duties directly related to teaching. For example, one interviewee reports:

Here the academic path stops with me and then I have to answer to administrators … I had people making suggestions about what should be in the degree based on administrative issues rather than academic ones. That led to incredible conflict.
Head of Programme

Another suggests “work here is seen as productive if it’s in front of a computer”. The head of degree programme further echoed this struggle with this observation:

If I never wrote another a piece of music again in my life, nobody here would give a toss. If I don’t get a report in, I’ll get raked over the coals. The priorities are totally wrong.
Head of Programme

While the staff at Metro acknowledge the organisation’s efforts to take on expectations of scholarship and create mechanisms to support its practice, time to undertake scholarship was consistently raised as a significant barrier, a challenge that they struggle to resolve. One interviewee encapsulates this sentiment:

Realistically if you push for development, for marking, for teaching, for all those other things we do, what’s going to come down the end of the list, it’s going to be scholarship. It’s just one of those things, there’s not enough time to do everything.

Given the strength of the interviewees’ commentary about the importance of scholarship to them professionally and personally, it was perhaps unsurprising that they articulated a sense of loss over their inability to devote the time to scholarship. Their discourse on this issue was often ardent, and their situation was variously portrayed as “de-skilling”, “untenable”, and a “real struggle”.

In response to this managerial culture and despite the limitations imposed by the terms and conditions of their work, the interviewees all provided evidence of their agentic capacities to shape their work practices. Self-directed and individually constructed scholarly activities are occurring at Metro, informed by individuals’ biographically informed notions of scholarship and the traditions of their professions. One interviewee remarked that they are inventing their own things to do and ways around the issues. Another commented that their scholarship was occurring “off their own bat”. These are “extra-curricular kinds of things you do because you believe in it and think it’s important, [although] it would be easier not to”. The interviewees were collaborating on artistic endeavours, consulting in industry, sourcing and performing alongside seminar guests, writing editorials and research papers, developing and reviewing curricula, and submitting papers and presenting at conferences. The social construction of scholarship and the sharing of academic pursuits are, however, largely occurring outside the institution. One interviewee again observes that this is largely workload driven and that the volume of teaching occurring across the timetable makes it difficult for staff to meet collegially.

Forming hybrid cultures

At Metro, hybrid cultures are emerging, including differing views on the extent to which Metro should emulate the culture and practices perceived to exist in a university. The analysis of interview data also suggests that the agentic orientations of teachers and managers fill the absence of strong scholarly cultures and structures to support the practice of scholarship. Being neither a VET nor a university space, within higher education at Metro there is a blending of managerial, corporate and academic identities, cultures and communities, each carrying with them distinctive orientations to scholarship and its connection to teaching. As the interviewees are reconciling their scholarly beliefs, understandings and practices within the organisational spaces they occupy, they provided evidence of their adaptation, resistance and filtering of these expectations in varying degrees of reactivity. At one extreme there was talk of “campaigns” and at the other a more passive response of saying “well, I’ll just forget my higher ed load and I’ll be happy with just my vocational diploma load”.

The introduction of higher education at Metro has introduced sub-cultures and two value systems as higher education provision matures and the proportions of higher education teachers and students increase. While the regulatory position calls for institutions to import this expertise through recruitment of external academics, the interviewees all spoke of opportunities to involve their own emerging academic communities. All interviewees called for more dialogue between staff and managers and for centres to take a lead role in the development of scholarly cultures. As the head of one of Metro’s degree programmes notes:

I think scholarship has to develop from the ground up not the top down. It has to stem from what happens in the centres, the department seminars and centre seminars and people’s research will filter to the top and then they can work out how to deal with it and present it to others outside the sector.
Head of Programme

Metro’s higher education teaching-only staff also suggested that the organisation give more recognition to the capacity of internal communities to shape their own direction and practices. One teacher suggested that stronger, centre-based communities with responsibilities for supporting scholarship in a way that makes sense in the context of their professional practice and the teaching and learning priorities of the particular programmes would assist in resolving the tensions over administrative versus academic issues. This clearly signals a shift in the traditional arrangements of influence and decision-making at Metro, where control is exercised through VET managerial structures.


Brew (2010) observes that there have been many attempts to define the nature of scholarship in general and disciplinary terms, but notes that much of this literature takes a normative perspective, positioning scholarship as a set of activities of particular kinds. In charting these developments in the literature, the author contends that Ernest Boyer, in his seminal text Scholarship Reconsidered,advanced the most notable redefinition of the concept of scholarship. Boyer’s framework is also cited explicitly and implicitly in much of the policy and regulatory documentation analysed as part of this study. Boyer (1990) advocates for a broader, more capacious, meaning of scholarship to bring legitimacy to the full scope of scholarly work. He argues that (p. 16):

the work of the professoriate might be thought of as having four separate, yet overlapping functions. These are: the scholarship of discovery; the scholarship of integration; the scholarship of application; and the scholarship of teaching.

Debate within the literature continues as to the meaning, application and merit of Boyer’s framework of academic work functions. For example, particular lines of inquiry have emerged as a result of Boyer’s notion of the scholarship of teaching and the issue of evaluating the quality of scholarly work (most notably through the work of Glassick, Huber and Mareoff, 1997). Rice (2002) suggests that the work of Lee Schulman has, among others, laid a firm intellectual foundation for acknowledging teaching as a scholarly enterprise. Further studies have also highlighted current understandings about teaching as scholarly practice, for example through the work of Trigwell, Martin, Benjamin and Prosser(2000), Kreber (2005), and Boshier (2009).
King and Widdowson (2009), in their study of scholarly activity within further education colleges, take the lead provided by Boyer’s work into their desk research. They drew forward into their empirical work the notion that the scholarships of teaching and application might provide a useful way of relating the delivery of higher-level skills in colleges to teachers’ notions of themselves as teachers and members of a “parent profession” (p. 17). Similarly, in other work, the identities of higher education teachers in further education providers have been found to be strongly rooted in teaching (Young, 2002) and therefore teachers tend to perceive scholarly activity in terms of enhancing their teaching and the student experience and ensuring mastery and currency of existing knowledge (Harwood & Harwood, 2004). King and Widdowson (2009), however, went on to conclude that distinctive orientations to scholarly activity in further education settings should not be presumed.

The pursuit of scholarship, practice of their profession, and commitment to education are central to Metro’s teachers’ notions of themselves and their roles as higher education teachers. Scholarship is seen by these teachers as a mechanism for remaining connected to and known in a professional sense within the field and their colleagues in the academic community. While maintaining mastery and currency is important for Metro’s teachers, so, too, is their contribution to the generation of new ideas and knowledge. The tendency in the regulatory and policy documentation to conceive scholarship either as solely related to teaching and learning or in disciplinary frames confronts the realities of higher education teaching in this space and the established traditions of VET providers, where links to professional knowledge and practice and industry-based innovation and development are strong.

Here Metro’s teachers are foregrounding an understanding of scholarship that aligns with Connell’s (1983) work seeing scholarship as a form of practice underpinned by intellectual work that builds knowledge in particular ways and settings. This practice perspective on scholarship recognises that communities in different situations produce ways of thinking that help them to understand and act in the world but, because they operate in different contexts, the “form of theorising is often different too” (Connell, 2007, p. xii). Connell’s approach (1993) presents scholarship as a particular form of work that occurs in particular places, develops knowledge about that world, and produces discourses that are useful and useable by that community. However, this perspective is largely unrecognised within the policy and regulatory positions, which fail to acknowledge the diversity of knowledge communities existing in education providers, including universities, and workplaces. Institutional processes for supporting scholarly activity in TAFE providers also tend to focus on ‘what’ activity is occurring, rather than encouraging reflective stances on ‘how’ or ‘why’ scholarly practice is developing.

The pursuit of scholarship has also been shown to present practical problems in VET providers (Young, 2002; Wheelahan et al., 2009). Turner, McKenzie, McDermott, and Stone (2009) argue that it is around discussions of scholarly activity and research that barriers associated with cultural mismatch between higher and further education become most apparent. The struggle over the practice of scholarship has also clearly emerged in this study and mirrors the findings within the literature of its evolving nature in these settings (King & Widdowson, 2009). A lack of time, scholarly values and cultures, and prevailing managerial traditions make the pursuit of scholarship difficult in TAFE institutes. Teachers are, however, variously filtering, contesting, and accommodating this reality with examples of passive and active resistance.

Young (2002) and Harwood and Harwood (2004) recognise the enormous commitment of further education lecturers working on higher education programmes despite the challenges. Turner, McKenzie and Stone (2009) call on providers to give teachers time and space to develop as HE in FE professionals, and this study has also highlighted the capability and commitment of higher education teachers in TAFE to contribute to the body of knowledge related to their subject expertise and to teaching and learning. For this potential to be realised, however, institutions must recognise the value and the time it takes to be engaged in these activities and their importance for quality higher education teaching in general.
In this process, existing paradigms will be challenged as to what constitutes teachers’ work in these settings. Questions over who supports, manages and evaluates this work will also be contested. For example, notions such as peer review in the evaluation of scholarly resources runs counter to the prevailing VET managerial structures. Policy makers and regulators also need to develop new ways to frame and support scholarship in VET providers, not least of which is the recognition that in becoming both VET and higher education providers, TAFE institutions have by default become new institutional forms, regardless of whether these are recognised in the regulatory arrangements or not.

Parry, Davies, and Williams (2004) argue that ‘HE in FE’ should be regarded as a hybrid form of higher education, which gives claim to colleges being regarded as normal and necessary settings for higher education. In the North American context, Levin (2004) argues that the expansion of community college missions to include full baccalaureate delivery not only alters institutional purpose but also challenges institutional identity. Like Parry et al. (2004), Levin suggests that this hybrid organisational identity leads to a new institution. Similarly, Metro’s identity as an organisation is not at a midpoint between TAFE institute and university. However, the evolving nature of this space is rarely recognised in the official discourse, which firmly suggests a normative orientation to university-based traditions. The identities of mixed-sector organisations and their higher education teachers are a fusion of educational, professional and academic notions, and the extent to which this diversity is acknowledged and given legitimacy is important in establishing the role of TAFE in the tertiary education environment. The position of professional bodies, employers, and students in informing the scholarly practice of higher education teachers in TAFE is, as King and Widdowson (2009) point out, also a potential point of differentiation.

Concluding thoughts

The evolving nature of scholarly practice in vocational and further education providers and the emergence of new institutional communities flag that a range of research areas will emerge for further inquiry. At an institutional level, there is an emerging literature base to draw on and practical examples of the ways providers and other stakeholder agencies are giving meaning to and support for scholarship by higher education teachers in these environments. However, this study has discerned that problems arise when definitions are tightly tied to specific forms of scholarly activity. An alternative may be to provide meaning around the qualities that make practice scholarly, tied to specific institutional values and priorities, which are then interpreted by teaching communities in ways that make professional and practical sense and address the demands of their programmes. Studies that consider how organisations and these communities can recognise and support the knowledge-building processes and products of scholarly practice may also be timely.

The development of new regulatory and policy settings currently playing out in Australian tertiary education will also continue to reframe the meaning and practice of scholarship in VET. The impact of this restructuring, externally and internally within hybrid mixed-sector institutions, warrants continued attention. Furthermore, as Angus and Seddon (2000) note, new ways of working and forms of rationality are constructed within boundaries of possibilities and limitations. What emerges in practice at TAFE institutes is rarely what the policy agenda says it should be (Angus & Seddon, 2000) and, ultimately, distinctive orientations towards scholarship and understandings of the ‘space for action’ will emerge for individuals and collectives. The authors foreground, however, that these “politics of possibility” (p. 169) are not the work of solitary, calculating individuals, but of collectives that strive to shape their practice within the institutional spaces they occupy and the discourses of their communities. Shifts will continue to occur internally within these institutions as academic communities grow and establish themselves within the fabric of the organisation. Therefore, the capacities of teachers and managers to continue to shape practice and create possibilities for action also reveal potential for future research.


Fleur Goulding completed a minor thesis in 2010 as part of her Master of Education at Monash University under the supervision of the co-author and went on to receive the Faculty of Education’s 2011 Top Graduating Student Award. She also works in a mixed-sector institution, where she supports the higher education function through her role as Manager, Institutional Research and Planning.

Terri Seddon is a Professor of Education at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Her research examines intersections between policy and practice by focusing on knowledge and change. Terri investigates the effects of global transitions that disturb workplaces and the way educators engage with knowledge in ways that govern adult learning, educational work and innovation and change.