What is ‘higher’ about higher education?

By Gavin Moodie –

This short article answers Cleveland’s question ‘What is “higher” about higher education?’ 1 by distinguishing higher education from vocational education on the one hand and school education on the other. It argues that education varies by the extent to which its context is academic disciplines and the extent to which its context is outside education, most often work. Higher education is distinguished from vocational education by being more academic and less externally contextualised than vocational education. School education is also academic and less externally contextualised than vocational education; higher education is distinguished from school education by being of a different and higher level but also by its focus on developing independent learners.


Identifying what is ‘higher’ about higher education is a live issue now because higher education has been informally identified although not defined as the education offered by archetypal higher education institutions—universities, just as vocational education has been identified as education offered by vocational colleges. This identification is made problematic by the great diversity of institutions that offer higher education—from small community or higher education colleges whose only higher education awards are associate or foundation degrees of 2 years’ duration, to big research intensive universities which have a high proportion of their students enrolled in doctoral programs and research. The identification of higher education with universities has been undermined more recently by the vertical integration of tertiary education—the increasing tendency of universities to offer foundation, pathways and vocational programmes leading to their core programme the baccalaureate, and of vocational colleges offering baccalaureates leading from their core programmes, certificates and diplomas.

I suggest that two criteria are needed to identify higher education: context and level.


Some higher education is in the liberal arts and sciences—in academic or ‘pure’ subjects or disciplines such as chemistry, literature, mathematics, philosophy and physics. Each of these disciplines is defined by a method for generating knowledge and the knowledge generated by that method. There is a continuum of academic disciplines from the natural sciences such as biology and physics which are primarily empirical, to the social sciences such as economics and psychology which are less heavily empirical, to the humanities such as literature and philosophy which are largely hermeneutic or interpretative. 2

Some higher education takes place within the professions—subjects such as engineering, law and medicine. Professional subjects are fields of productive practice in which academic knowledge has been applied or recontextualised. 3 Each professional subject is oriented towards its field of practice and also towards one or more disciplines which it applies. Education in each profession develops students’ skill in practice and also their understanding of the recontextualised academic knowledge that the profession uses to solve new problems. Professional subjects are thus moderately contextualised by academic disciplines and moderately contextualised by their field of practice.

Professional education is vocational in the sense that it prepares graduates to practice an occupation. However, vocational education is more heavily contextualised by its field of practice and less contextualised by applied disciplinary knowledge than professional education. Most vocations therefore need less formal education than the professions. Vocations rely more on explicit work procedures, tacit work practices, processes for monitoring the amount and quality of work, supervisors and other aspects of the employment context.


Academic subjects are taught in primary and secondary education as well as in higher education, so higher education needs to be distinguished from school education. Some guidance may be gained from UNESCO’s International standard classification of education which classifies education by level and field to facilitate the collection and comparison of international statistics on education. UNESCO understands level of education to reflect the degree of complexity of knowledge, skills and capabilities that a program imparts. 4 UNESCO’s International standard classification of education is adequate for distinguishing education by level since it is used extensively for educational statistics and description, for example, for the OECD’s Education at a glance. 5 However, perhaps educational level may be distinguished more richly.

We observe that a person’s education progresses by levels of independence. Children start learning by imitation, depending heavily on their carer and on other models. At primary school pupils are given tasks which the teacher monitors closely to ensure that pupils do the task correctly. Secondary school pupils are more independent—they are set homework which they are expected to complete in their own time—but within a highly structured framework. In higher education students are given much more freedom to manage their own learning, but are still prescribed a curriculum. By the end of the baccalaureate one hopes that graduates are independent learners. On this understanding the baccalaureate is the process of developing independent learners, at least in a broad field, and the doctorate is the process of developing autonomous learners—ones who can write their own rules.


This paper has argued that education differs by the extent to which it prepares students for productive practice which is based heavily on a context external to academic disciplines and by the extent to which it conveys disciplines which are based heavily in an academic context. It has also argued that education differs by level and particularly by the level of the students’ independence. From this I conclude that higher education is education which develops graduates as independent learners of knowledge which is weakly or moderately contextualised by productive practice, such as in the workplace.

Dr Gavin Moodie is Principal Policy Advisor as part of the Governance and Planning Office at RMIT University (officially the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology). In the position since 2010, Gavin researches and advises the Vice Chancellor on policy relevant to RMIT and to tertiary education generally.

  1. Cleveland, Harlan (1981) What is ‘higher’ about higher education? Vital speeches of the day, 6/1/81, volume 47 issue 16 pages 509-512.
  2. Bhaskar, Roy (1998) (1979) The possibility of naturalism: a philosophical critique of the contemporary human sciences, 3rd edition, Routledge, London and New York.
  3. Bernstein, Basil (2000) (1996) Pedagogy, symbolic control, and identity: theory, research and critique, revised edition, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, Lanham, p.9.
  4. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) (1997) International standard classification of education, p.10, retrieved 23 December 2007 from http://www.unesco.org/education/docs/isced_1997.htm.
  5. OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) (2011) Education at a glance 2011: OECD indicators.



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