Monday, 1 April 2013

Controlling professional knowledge in Australia: implications for social mobilities

Abstract for AHA Conference this year

Professions grew over centuries but have in recent times experienced rapid change.  A century ago, very few occupations required formal qualifications. Now, by contrast, credentials are the key way to access professional opportunity in Australia. There is no sign of this trend slowing. It has raised the standing of certain occupations but may have simultaneously erected new barriers to those who, for want of tertiary qualifications, can no longer access their chosen profession.

Despite their place in regulating the supply of professionals, universities have not normally controlled the professional standards, grade levels and pay rates that signify the possession of workplace-based knowledge. Partnerships with professional bodies were forged to legitimise tertiary education’s place in the labour market.

The power and equity implications of a growing formalisation of professional knowledge are not clear. Marxist orthodoxy sees the wresting of ‘craft’ knowledge away from workers as a key mechanism of capitalist power. Other approaches, however, emphasise the value to both the profession and society of increased attention to education and professional standards and of merit-based selection.

This paper draws on a case study of engineering in New South Wales to consider the implications of the control and regulation of workplace-based knowledge. It explores the shift away from the pupillage system, based in workplaces, and the competing authority of educational institutions and the Institute of Engineers. This case study represents an initial foray into a larger project on the history of professions in Australia, exploring the effect of changing conceptions of merit on access to professional standing.

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