The Grattan Institute recently published a report which examined the circumstances in which VET studies are a good, or maybe even better, alternative than higher education.

Here’s what the report found and where there are advantages in VET study, particularly those with lower ATAR scores. But it’s a mixed bag.

The context

Over the past 20 years, higher education (HE) in Australia has expanded rapidly, particularly following the introduction of demand-driven funding. Demand driven funding of higher ed. has had a ‘mixed report card’, as a report by the Productivity Commission found.

On the other hand, and as the authors Andrew Norton and Ittima Cherastidtham of the Grattan Institute’s  report point out: “by contrast, vocational education attainment rates have fluctuated without much long-term change.” Essentially as a sector it’s ‘flat lined’.

Voc Ed, as we all know, has had some very bad press, particularly following the debacle of VET Fee Help. This hasn’t been helped by some poor policy development and implementation around the marketisation of VET.

The bad news is that this has really masked the considerable good that VET does, and the value it brings to its students, industry and the broader community. Like the Productivity Commission the Grattan institute argues that:

“Some university students with low school results would be better off doing vocational education instead.”

Lower-ATAR students going to university mostly take commerce, humanities, education and health-related courses. These students are also less likely to complete their university studies. If they do complete, typically, they have failed more subjects and their academic results are worse than the rest of their graduating cohort. In addition, recent higher education graduates with lower ATARs “are less likely to find work and, if employed, are less likely to be in professional or managerial jobs than high-ATAR graduates. A slow start often has a lasting effect on both employment and earnings later in life.”

So, who might benefit from the alternative, Voc Ed, and who doesn’t? The answer seems to be gender related but, in reality, the answers aren’t simple.

The risks and rewards are gender related

Andrew and Ittima found that:

“Vocational diplomas in construction, engineering, and commerce typically lead to higher lifetime incomes than many low-ATAR university graduates are likely to earn, especially those with degrees in popular fields such as science and humanities.”

And so

“Especially for low-ATAR men, some vocational alternatives to university are worth considering.”

On the other hand, they found that higher education is almost always the best option for lower-ATAR women. “Teaching and nursing are popular university courses for low-ATAR women, and often lead to stable careers. These students are unlikely to do better in a vocational education course.”

The authors also report that:

“Few women enrol in vocational education engineering, and those who do often have poor career and earnings outcomes.”

These occupations are also inflexible in terms of providing work that is part time or conductive to women’s employment needs and broader responsibilities.

What’s needed?

“A good tertiary education system steers prospective students towards courses that increase their opportunities and minimise their risks. Australia’s post-school system does not always achieve this goal” the report’s lead author Andrew Norton says.

But part of the answer also starts at school. Schools need to give students, particularly those likely to get a lower ATAR score, better career advice and alert them to the best possibilities in line with their career interests.

Finally, Governments are urged in the report to end funding biases against vocational education. In particular VET students often face up-front fee costs that university students do not. This is another issue VDC News looked at in June this year. And if you want more, you can access a lecture by Prof Peter Dawkins, the Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University on rethinking and revitalising tertiary education in Australia.