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Academic drift and surveying education

Feb 2018 | No Comment


There must be a deliberate strategy to guard against academic drift in surveying/ geomatics education while not diminishing the great value of engendering the development of generic critical thinking and problem-solving skills and scientific enquiry among the privileged individuals who are able to access higher education

Dr Garfield Young

Associate Professor and Dean, Faculty of the Built Environment University of Technology, Jamaica

As universities strive to find a balance between theory and practice; and between generic and specialist knowledge and competencies, a real concern is that there may be a disproportionate shift towards a greater academic approach and a concomitant shifting from the more practical elements. A study of fifteen Surveying/Geomatics programmes in several countries provided empirical evidence that academic drift is a real matter of concern in this discipline (Young et. al., 2012). Associated with this trend, is the risk of professionoriented courses gradually losing their usefulness for professional preparation. A deeper examination of the concept of ‘academic drift’ explains this concern.

Academic drift

Academic drift describes the gradual reduction in vocational focus and reciprocal increase in the emphasis on academic and more general education. The term was originally used by Burgess (1972), and described by Harwood (2010) as:

a term sometimes used to describe the process whereby knowledge which is intended to be useful, gradually loses close ties to practice, while becoming more tightly integrated with one or other body of scientific knowledge (p. 413).

The literature speaks of this phenomenon in higher education, in which vocational courses, and profession-oriented courses such as Land Surveying with highly practical orientations, gradually experience a shifting in vocational and professional focus towards more theoretical orientation with enhanced academic values, attributes and attitudes. This is often seen as occurring at the expense of those vocational and profession-based competencies that are more valued by professions.

Jónasson (2006) explains that both students and academic staff contribute to this shifting of values:

Thus students (… the primary consumers of education), along with their aspirations for educational credentials, are interpreted as a substantial driving force behind educational expansion. The academic faculty, on the other hand, having a similar aspiration for status, affect the internal structures of institutions and of the system, partly as a response to institutional growth and partly as a method to gain status, which leads to the academic drift that we witness. (Jonasson, 2006 p. 4)

Jonasson sees academic drift as starting with students’ demands for ‘educational credentials of the highest prestige to enhance their opportunities in the labour market and their social standing in society’ (p. 292). This view is in contrast to the notion that students are more concerned that educational systems are aligned to professional practice. What is perhaps true, is that both issues of academic credentials and professional relevance, concern university students. However, as Bourdieu (1984) indicated, there exists a power struggle between these competing elements, and the more dominant force will determine “the capitals of the field”.

Furthermore, it was said that the aspirations of academic staff also influence academic drift (Kyvik’s, 2007). As related to professional engineering practice, Christensen et al., (2011) refer to this specific influence as ‘staff drift’:

As an academic orientation differs from the practice-based and industrial and utilitarian orientation for professionally educated engineers in terms of reflectivity, critical orientation, regard for theory and orientation towards research, staff members characterised by an academic orientation will tend to push their institutions towards academic values, practices and attitudes’ (p. 292)

Systematic changes have also been cited as contributing to academic drift. Christensen & Erno-Kjolhede, (2011) cite the upgrading of college-based engineering programmes in Denmark and the upgrading of the England and Wales Higher National Certificates and Diplomas (HNCs & HNDs) to degree courses after the passing of the Further and Higher Education Act (1992), as examples of processes that contribute to academic drift. Similar changes in the Higher Education Sector have been observed in smaller countries such as Jamaica (Sangster, 2011), and large countries with emerging higher education sectors such as India (Pednekar, 2011). However, the change from certificates and diplomas levels vocational courses to university-based degree courses is widely perceived to be a progressive step. This is echoed by Pednekar (2011):

There is good news in store for the nearly five lakhs (500,000) students studying in vocational institutes in the state. The state government has decided to upgrade vocational education to create more opportunities for these students by setting up an independent vocational university, adding mainstream degree courses and post graduate options in vocational subjects…to bridge gaps between vocational students and their counterparts in mainstream courses… (Pednekar, 2011)

Without discounting the benefits of the educational opportunities that the upgrading of vocational or technical courses will provide for students, it should also be noted, that changes such as these may have negative repercussions. It has been shown that wide scale changes of vocational courses to degree courses, with increased academic and reduced vocational emphases, can create a gap in industry. Evans (2010) in his criticism of changes in UK vocational higher education system argued that:

Foundation Degrees have undermined Higher National Certificates and Diplomas which have long been greatly valued by many employers (another example of academic drift is to attach degree to the title and think it is more important!). These forerunner awards were very much vocationally focussed. (p.1)

The gap in industry results from an unwillingness of individuals with higher qualifications (degrees) to work in low-status ‘vocational’ positions with commensurate lower remunerations. Also, the nature of industry in many professions is such that more individuals are required for skilled (vocational or technical) positions than for high profile professional positions. For this reason, changes in the higher education sector require careful considerations of labourmarket planning (Grossman & McDonald, 2008). This is important because industries need a flow of qualified individuals for different levels of work and appropriate education and training to enhance productivity. This should not be solely based on current trends, but also with a futuristic view, that predicts changes in profession or even sets the pace for change within professions (Hudson et al., 2005).

This shifting of vocational and academic focus has links to the classification of higher education universities in the UK. Sanders (2002) refers to the distinction between polytechnics and universities as the binary divide. She highlights John Marenbon’s comment on the issue, which explains, that in the UK context, politics has played a critical role in this labourmarket and higher education issue:

Conservative politicians, as much as Labour ones, believed in the nonsense about making vocational education of equal esteem to academic education. I think the government should have been concerned to see that there existed high-quality academic education for a very small elite, and that there was good vocational training for those who wanted, closely linked to the workplace (Marenbon as quoted by Sanders, 2002, p.1).

This view, suggests that the higher education sector should have distinct pathways. The view also implies the elevation of the more academic approach over more practical, work-specific learning. Marenbon’s argument essentially identifies what he perceives to be a tension in the labour market created by the attempt to unify the higher education sector in the UK. This tension impacts several industries as it relates to producing graduates who are able to function effectively in professional work soon after graduation. The issue of academic drift underlies failings in the management of professional education. The upgrading of work-based courses should not be done in isolation of labour market planning and consultation with related professions. The literature shows that issues are yet unresolved regarding on-going changes to profession-oriented and vocational education and the impact on industries. If the ‘upgrading’ of vocational qualifications to more academic qualifications lead to a devaluation in the capital (economic, cultural and symbolic) (Bourdieu, 1997), then there may be need to rethink division of labour within industry along with new ways of managing educational programmes geared towards professional preparation.

Personal reflections as a researcher and surveying educator

Having done studies that explored the nature and impact of the educational strategies used in university surveying/ geomatics programmes, I have found that the changing of formerly highly technical surveying courses to universitybased degree courses is believed to be the catalyst to an increasing academisation of the professional education programmes within the discipline. Not surprisingly, professional surveyors and surveying academics have conflicting opinions about this issue. To several of the professional surveyors, the increase in theoretical focus and relative decrease in the technical/ practical focus, compromise the adequacy of the courses for professional preparation. They perceive that this trend reduces work-relevance, which demonstrates that industry has an expectation that the educational programmes should prepare students for work in a rational way. In this sense employers expect that the substantive knowledge acquired in universities, the technical capabilities and the generic skills should be closely aligned to the demands of professional work.

However, for many surveying academics, an increase in theoretical focus is consistent with a more appropriate emphasis for higher education institutions whose responsibility is for doing far more than preparing individuals for narrow profession-oriented competencies. This philosophical stance considers the development of scientific reasoning and critical thinking along with other generic skills as foundational to professional preparation even within a highly technical field such as surveying. It is believed that these higher level skills are later transferred to specific work-related competencies during professional engagements.

Due to lack of stable forecasts about the nature of future tasks in working life and qualifications as outlined by Barnett (1990), it is difficult to assess the feasibility of professional courses with regard to requirements in working life. It is therefore concluded that the educational preparation for surveying/geomatics work, while conveying the technical and discipline-specific knowledge, should also convey those generic and transferable skills that facilitate life-long learning. This approach, it is argued, engenders some degree of technical readiness but also promotes a disposition towards learning that facilitates an on-going evaluation and development of relevant competencies.

My research has reinforced the notion that teaching and learning surveying/ geomatics are far more than conveying theoretical and practical knowledge. While these represent important parts of the process, it is evident that an often underemphasised yet important component is the nature of the relationship between those stakeholders within the university and those within the profession/industry (Young et al, 2012). The implications for pedagogy must be given deliberate consideration in the design and delivery of curricula. Furthermore, pedagogy can, and should be informed by the social arrangements that exist within the profession. This wider understanding of the nature of contemporary surveying/ geomatics education calls for a reorientation of educational philosophy. Thus, surveying pedagogy should have relevance to professional realities and so should include: strategies for engaging students as active partners in the learning and knowledge construction process, and actions to conveying specific and generic knowledge content and an awareness of the social arrangements that exists within the wider field of geomatics. I foresee that this will inform approaches to content delivery, assessment strategies and on-going evaluation of the processes involved. There must be a deliberate strategy to guard against academic drift in surveying/geomatics education while not diminishing the great value of engendering the development of generic critical thinking and problem-solving skills and scientific enquiry among the privileged individuals who are able to access higher education. These are the individuals who will keep the professions vibrant and relevant and innovate practice in ways that enhance professional standards and elevate the role we play in the eyes of those we seek to serve.

My challenge to surveying/geomatics academics is that we find a way to work together, engaging all the important players, to build a signature pedagogy for our discipline. The objective is to be able to utilize this strategy to teach the content and form with academic rigour – without compromising standards (professional and academic), along with the communicating and modelling the appropriate dispositions that will keep our beloved profession on a path of on-going development in a way that it can attract the best and the brightest coming out of our school systems. Thus, academic drift and the “academisation” of surveying education needs not be viewed as a threat; but rather, an opportunity to strengthen the real and perceived value of the land surveying profession and all the related professions that have emerged in this age of geomatics.


1) Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London, Routledge.

2) Bourdieu, P. (1997). The forms of capital. Education: Culture, Economy and Society. A. H. Halsey, H. Lauder, B. P. and A. Stuart Wells. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

3) Christensen, S. H. and E. Erno- Kjolhede (2011). “Academic drift in Danish professional engineering education. Myth or reality? Opportunity or threat?. .” European Journal of Engineering Education 36(3): 285-299.

4) Evans, R. (2010). Vocational Higher Education Technical Education Matters

5) Grossman, P. and M. McDonald (2008). “Back to the future: Directions for research in teaching and teacher education.” American Educational Research Journal 45(1): 184-205.

6) Harwood, J. (2010). “Understanding Academic Drift: On the Institutional Dynamics of Higher Technical and Professional Education.” Minerva 48(4): 413-427.

7) Hudson, R. C., R. Curtis, et al. (2005). “Education Planning with Insight.” Canadian Association of Leisure Studies

8) Jónasson, J. T. (2006). Can credentialism help to predict the convergence of institutions and systems of higher education? CHER- Systems Convergence and Institutional Diversity, Kassel, CHER.

9) Kyvik, S. (2007). Academic Drift: A reinterpretation Towards a cartography of higher education policy change. J. Enders and F. van Vught. Enschede, CHEPS: 333-338.

10) Pednekar, P. (2011). Government to upgrade vocational education courses Daily News Analysis. Mumbai.

11) Sanders, C. (2002). “Mixed report for class of ‘92.” Times Higher Education (June ).

12) Sangster, A. (2011). The Making of a University: From CAST to UTech. Kingston Ian Randle

13) Young, G., M. J. Smith, et al. (2012). “Contemporary Surveying Education “ Survey Review 44(326): 223-229.

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