The Commonwealth Department of Education, Skills and Employment is looking at how students move around the tertiary education space: the VET and higher education sectors.

Interestingly, far more move from higher education to VET than the other way round.

In a pilot project the Department of Education, Skills and Employment used data matching techniques combining the Unique Student Identifier (USI) data, established in 2015, and the Commonwealth Higher Education Student Support Number – CHESSN to its friends. This latter number has been in use since 2005.

A summary of what they found is on the Department’s website the issue of the complexity of students’ journeys was discussed in the background paper of the Shergold Review of senior secondary pathways that was also the subject of a recent VDC News article in August.

The story: VET to higher education

This is the most commonly held view about the ways the student traffic flow moves, and certainly VET to HE is the one privileged by current funding arrangements that can encourage ‘onwards and upwards’ pathways rather than others. But the Department’s work shows that the world of pathways is more complicated and it probably always been that way. The Longitudinal Survey Of Australian Youth data has presented a similar picture over a shorter personal timeframe for those 15 to 25 years of age, and  we have highlighted that work in that space here and here. However, before now, the data on movements between VET and HE and the other way were just not comprehensive enough. It’s getting better, though!

The estimate of movement from VET to HE is estimated at 0.4 -1.3%, but this is likely to be an underestimate given the relative ‘newness’ of the USI. In other words, there may be more traffic that way in the future, but it hasn’t actually happened yet. Interestingly, the highest proportion of VET to HE students – 27% – had a non-AQF qualification under their belt before taking up their HE studies. But, again, this makes sense given that they may have required such a qualification to volunteer or work prior to beginning their higher ed. studies.

As expected, the great majority – 84% – enrolled in a bachelor qualification but, unlike the HE to VET students, they covered a wide range of study fields. However, the Department found that 25% were studying in the field of society and culture, which includes psychology; law and criminal justice; community, social and support services and the social sciences. This, too, is understandable as it is likely to represent a pathway to career progression from their VET studies – maybe.

A range of previous authors have studied the VET to HE movement, but without the benefit of the big-data analyses that are becoming increasingly possible. In 2013, Jenny Chesters, Louise Watson and Pauline Hagel looked at pathways into higher education by VET award holders. They described the pathway door as ‘half open’, due to differences and inconsistencies in admissions policies and practices by individual universities. In practice, this meant that doors were more open at some institutions than others. In 2017, Justin Brown from ACER took a look credit-based pathways between VET and HE. He concluded that a major barrier was reconciling CBT and knowledge-based approaches to teaching and learning – amongst other things. Others have looked at these pathways too, including Roger Harris and Linda Rainey in 2012 and Gavin Moodie in 2010.

The story: Higher education to VET

Based on original sector enrolment the Department’s pilot study estimates about a 14 to 16% movement from HE to VET studies. Of these 60% enrolled in non-AQF VET programs after their HE studies, most commonly ‘Health first aid’ or ‘occupational health and safety.’ This makes sense; it’s often these types of skills employers and volunteer organisations require of their workforce. Of the remainder, 19% enrolled in a Certificate III and 8% in a Certificate IV. Most commonly, these AQF awards were in management and commerce or in society and culture.

Before enrolling in a VET program these students were less likely than those moving from VET to HE to have completed their course – usually at bachelor level (83%). Of these, though, 63% had completed their degree, 26% had dropped out and 12% were still enrolled!

One of the other previous pieces of work going back to 2006 by Roger Harris and his colleagues described tertiary pathways as more like crazy paving and maybe less like stepping stones. And that is probably the way things really are. Maybe even more so now!

This brings us to another issue. The big data tell us where, how much and in what direction the students move; but they don’t tell us about the ‘why’ – the student’s individual stories – and that’s the question we need to ask students now!