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University vs VET: Choosing the right path for employment outcomes

The VET versus university debate has been dominated by education providers arguing the benefit of ‘their’ pathway. As a simple comparison between VET and higher education, arguments can be made the VET graduates are more likely to be employed, or that university graduates earn more across their lifespan.

This debate, however, doesn’t take into account the most important factor: the student. A new report by the Grattan Institute demonstrates that many course type and student-level factors influence successes.

The Grattan Institute report models education, employment and wage outcomes of VET and university students, based on many student factors. The report clearly shows that there is no single, clear pathway that benefits all students.

There are a large number of reasons why an individual student may choose one path over the other (or a combination of both), and there are a number of factors inherent within the student that could impact their success. The motivations, passions and aims of the student should be a key factor in the decision-making process.

In 2017, most students studying a bachelor degree indicated some form of employment related reason as their main motivation for studying; either for a new job or gaining additional skills for a current job. VET students indicate similar employment related reasons for studying; unsurprisingly given that the VET sector is positioned to provide relevant workforce skills to students, and provide industry and employers with the skilled employees they need. Data from QS Enrolment Solutions shows that VET students are only slightly more likely than university students to choose their provider based on high graduate employment rates.

Students who achieve a high ATAR typically do well at university: they have good completion rates, are unlikely to fail subjects, and have good employment and wage outcomes post-completion. These students are traditionally those who pursue a higher education pathway, and had good outcomes from their choices.

In recent times there has been an increase in students with low ATARs choosing university instead of VET. In contrast to the high-ATAR students, these low-ATAR students are more likely to withdraw, more likely to fail subjects, are less likely to be employed, and have lower wages.

At the same time, we have increasing numbers of school-leavers going to university, outstripping the growth in jobs trained through the university sector.

If a school leaver wants to study for the purpose of an employment outcome, an Australian Apprenticeship could be the perfect choice. Combining a VET qualification with on-the-job learning, apprentices and trainees get paid while getting their qualification.

Many students are studying university degrees in fields that can be done through a VET qualification, and which have similar if not better employment outcomes compared with their same-field university courses.

This is important when decision making: students should be encouraged to look at similar areas of study and employment that can be done through other pathways. The outcomes of these similar courses can be considered, and the student can choose whichever is best for them.

This is particularly true for students who are likely to receive a low-ATAR, for whom trade pathways could result in significantly better employment outcomes. Although males have better outcomes through VET pathways than females, this is partly due to few female students going into the trades.