Australians are fortunate to have access to a range of further education options after they graduate from secondary school. Our country is known internationally for its world-class universities and vocational education system. Two of the most popular options are Vocational Education and Training (aka VET) and University. Each system has its own focus, style of learning, and unique strengths to offer, which can make choosing the right training option for you a challenge. University has long been regarded as the pinnacle of education and the best option for our brightest young minds. But does vocational training have more to offer than you might have realised?
What is the Difference Between Higher Education and Vocational Education?
University generally offers an ‘academic’ education experience. ‘Academic’ education is normally defined as education with learning as its primary purpose. An academic education explores the theoretical and hypothetical but is not necessarily practical, realistic, or directly useful.
Undergraduate students normally study for three to four years full-time to earn their first Bachelor’s Degree. They can then continue on at university and do postgraduate, master’s degrees, and doctorates.
Entry requirements for university courses are often quite high. Usually, you need to complete year 12 and may need to score high marks to get into some programs depending on the intellectual demands and competition for each course.
The Australian Qualifications Framework ranks university qualifications, starting with a Bachelor’s Degree, above vocational courses in terms of depth and breadth of knowledge learned. However, there are fundamental differences in the style of teaching which means VET courses are far more valuable than they may seem.
Vocational training has a distinctly different educational focus. VET is aimed at delivering practical skills that are job-specific. That means if you pursue vocational education, your courses should teach you the specific knowledge and skills you need to know to perform a particular job role.
Vocational courses are offered at a number of levels – from very basic courses at Certificate I level, up to Diplomas and Advanced Diplomas which are often equivalent in complexity to first-year university study. Vocational training has expanded beyond the scope of trades to encompass industries such as information technology, tourism, retail, cosmetics, healthcare, childcare, management, and business.
VET courses, especially at lower levels, typically have no or low entry requirements so they are suitable for just about anyone – even if you didn’t finish high school or didn’t get the grades to start the university course you’d like.
Vocational courses are also typically quite short compared to university degrees. A vocational course can take anywhere from a few hours up to a couple of years of full-time study. Certificates often take three to twelve months full-time to complete. Diplomas and Advanced Diplomas often run for one to two years full time. Apprenticeships and traineeships can take longer – three to five years in some cases.
While TAFE has traditionally been the largest provider of VET courses in Australia, there are a number of private training organisations available who have become efficient at delivering training at an economical price. Some may prefer the face-to-face training style typically offered at TAFE, but private Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) often specialise in online learning, which gives you the opportunity to study at your own pace from home for a lower cost.
Pros and Cons
There are certain advantages and disadvantages in studying via University Education, or through Vocational Education.
For the longest time, higher education has been always the standard for academic prestige. Society has always had high regard for people holding a university degree — which can be one reason why individuals highly consider university education over vocational education and training.
So definitely, university education beats VET in the “prestige department” if we put it that way.
But in reality, you really shouldn’t see vocational education as something lesser than university education.
In fact, one of the main advantages of finishing a VET course is being more job-ready than university graduates. Vocational education focuses on practical and specific skills, unlike higher education that focuses on abstract concepts and theoretical frameworks — which realistically, cannot give you the actual skills you need to start working right away.
VET also has Vocational placement, which helps students gain further hands-on skills and knowledge in their specific fields. Students are immersed in the professional setting and experience firsthand what it’s like to be in the working class — something university education does not really have.
After completing your vocational education and training, you are immediately ready and qualified to work. All your training was to equip you with the necessary skills to start right after you graduate.
In VET courses, students are taught how to do things by professionals in the field, which allows them to learn real-life job skills.
This can be seen as an advantage because it means Vocational Education and Training has a strong emphasis on making sure their students are ready for life after school, while the higher education setup has less of this as a requirement.
Should You do a VET Course or University Education?
There is a huge variety of courses and subjects in both the University and VET systems today. The most important factors to consider are your strengths and your interests.
You’ll always find it difficult to really apply yourself to something you hate doing.
University courses commonly have a long-term payoff – it might be several years before you can use your qualifications to start earning an income.
Even if you’re not necessarily interested in going to university, some careers do require you to earn a degree – for example, school teachers need to complete a teaching degree in order to work in Australian schools.
Vocational education can be a great way to get fast-tracked into a well-paying skilled job, can be one of the quicker ways to change your career path, and is ideal for those starting tertiary education as an adult. Some vocational qualifications are mandatory to work in certain industries and roles.
Which One Pays Better?
In recent years there seems to have been a shift in Australian workplaces. Talent.com indicates that in 2021, the average bachelor-degree graduate earns $62,500 a year. And according to the National Skills Commission, the numbers are $52,200 for a Certificate III graduate or $68,100 for a Certificate IV graduate, while workers with a Diploma or higher qualification earn more on average with $63,800 a year.
That doesn’t mean all vocational courses have such good pay outcomes, just as it doesn’t mean that all university graduates will be in low-paid positions. Overall though, vocational graduates are earning higher incomes.
One factor might be that university is often a long-term investment for your future – you’ll learn the theory at university and develop the practical experience you need on the job, over time. As you develop experience and reconcile it with the theory you have learned, you’ll start to take on more responsibilities and command higher wages.
Vocational training graduates, in contrast, come equipped with the specific skills needed to start performing in the workplace immediately – increasing their value to employers relative to fresh university graduates.
The ongoing strength of the mining and resources sector has also been a contributing factor. Many skills demanded in those industries are taught in the vocational system.
Entry-level salaries in those industries are high – around $100,000 in many cases. Vocational skills valued in the resource sector can range from trained cooks to diesel mechanics.
Best of Both Worlds
Fortunately, the value of vocational qualifications has been recognised in recent decades. Today, it’s frequently possible to start your tertiary education in the vocational sector with low or medium-level Certificate qualifications. You can use these to start working in a skilled profession as soon as possible.
Then, as you develop experience and want to advance further in your field, you can continue your education with more qualifications over time – higher level Certificates, Diplomas, and Advanced Diplomas. Some high-level vocational courses are entry paths into university and can grant you advanced standing (aka credit or RPL) towards your Bachelor’s Degree.
Finding Your Path
You don’t need to rush into one system of education or the other. Work out where you’re planning to go in your career and take some time to research your options.
Finding the right education and training path for your interests, needs, and abilities is an important step in ensuring your long-term success. Good luck in your education and training and let us know if we can help you out!
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