June saw the release of the Productivity Commission’s report card on the higher education system.

Its messages are mixed. University can be transformative and beneficial, but the present system has costs too, they say.

Why this report?

Higher education is a pathway for many to rewarding careers and has many other broader benefits too.

However the report card states:

“Young people also have limited information about study opportunities and the careers they may lead to.”

Some of these young people don’t know much about what higher education can offer, particularly if they don’t have role models or come from under-represented groups. But the other side is that some students and their parents may not know much about the VET system either, especially when further education choices are being made.

The rise of demand driven higher education from 2010 to 2017 saw significant growth in numbers attending university. While there are many benefits to this policy, it may have had some downsides too.

Who are these new higher ed. students?

They come from a wide range of backgrounds, including some underrepresented groups (for example, those with low SES and first in family to higher education) – but not others (for example Indigenous students and those from regional or remote areas). Most commonly, these underrepresented groups “had lower levels of literacy and numeracy and a lower Australian Tertiary Admission Rank.” Most had an ATAR less than 70. Their dropout rates were also higher, and they also needed more academic support.

The Productivity Commission found that:

“Overall, the demand driven system succeeded in increasing the number of students and made progress in improving equity of access. However, many are entering university ill‑prepared and struggling academically.”

They concluded that:

“University will not be the best option for many. Viable alternatives in employment and vocational education and training will ensure more young people succeed.”

Some of the metrics

Figure 3 in the report contains interesting comparisons between those who might be seen as the ‘additional’ university students through demand driven funding and those other more traditional cohort. It makes interesting reading, particularly in terms of field of study and outcomes. The ‘additionals’ are more likely to study education, IT and management or commerce. In contrast, the ‘traditionals’ are more likely to be in fields like engineering or the natural and physical sciences.

Outcomes are revealing too. Graduation rates for the ‘additionals’ at age 25 were 68%, dropout rate was 22%, perhaps also because they entered university when they were older and were studying part-time. For the ‘traditionals’ the equivalent rates were 80 and 12 percent respectively. However, the Commission found that the “… additional students that did graduate transitioned fairly well into the labour market.”

Is there a better story VET should tell?

The Commission acknowledged that:

“The other major alternatives to university — a job or vocational training — have been undermined by relative weakness in the youth labour market and deep‑seated challenges in the vocational education and training sector.”

On the other hand, they also report that “VET attendees also have very good, and sometimes better, labour market outcomes than university attendees — at least by age 25 years — suggesting that VET should not be overlooked as a career pathway.” We take a look at post-school pathways in another article in this issue.

They Commission did some matching between like VET and university students too. While such comparisons can be problematic they found that “at age 25 years, a higher proportion of VET students were working full time and on average they earned more than their matched counterparts that attended university.” This may be because they entered the workforce earlier and have progressed further in their careers, but it’s interesting.

Given a wider and more flexible range of available pathways and in the longer term, maybe VET has more to offer young people than it is given credit for?