Avis, James (2015) Beyond Competence, Thinking Through the Changes: Economy, Work and Neo-liberalism. In: 9th International Conference on Researching Work & Learning, 9 - 11th December 2015, School of the Arts, Singapore. (Unpublished)

The paper considers workplace learning, cognitive capitalism and conceptualisations of competence. This discussion needs to be set within the wider socio-economic context characterised by an increasingly turbulent environment in which the old certainties surrounding industrial Fordism of jobs for life have been found wanting. This is particularly the case in societies closely wedded to neo-liberalism such as the US and UK. These societies are marked by significant inequalities of wealth and income, polarised labour markets, as well as substantial levels of underemployment, unemployment and over-qualification. Economic turbulence allied to underemployment, unemployment and over-qualification has been a longstanding characteristic of waged labour in the emerging economies and is increasingly found in continental Europe, even though here the hegemony of neo-liberalism is somewhat softened. For some writers the logic of capitalist development anticipates forms of social production which carry progressive possibilities whereas for others the prognostication is much bleaker. The paper explores these debates as they serve to frame the manner in which we make sense of and engage with notions of competence and knowledge. The paper draws on discussions of vocationalism, vocational pedagogy as well as what constitutes vocational knowledge, debates which are set within particular historic, socio-economic and national contexts. It points towards the limitations of analyses of workplace learning and in so doing draws upon conceptualisations of 'really useful knowledge' and subject based disciplinary knowledge. Workplace learning can easily fold over into an instrumentalism concerned with enhancing variable labour power. The paper argues for a recognition of the articulation between practice-based and employer interests in VET which are set against wider disciplinary understandings and access to powerful and transformative knowledge. It is suggested that disciplinary knowledge, when allied to workplace experience, can be appropriated by oppressed and marginalised groups thereby becoming 'really useful knowledge' that can be marshalled in the struggle for social justice. This then is the pedagogic challenge - to open up possibilities that themselves presage not only the transformation of practice but also social relations. The notion of competence, as Sawchuk (2009) suggests, is a floating signifier with its meaning varying over time, from society to society, as well as in relation to the particular occupational task addressed. Not only do we encounter this fluidity, but the term will be embedded in vocational education and training policy discourses in distinctive ways. In the paper I have set myself the task of bring together and relating literature that has addressed workplace learning, competency as well as changes in the capitalist mode of production.

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