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Australia's tertiary students - the latest snapshot



Almost twice as many higher education graduates enrol in vocational education and training courses than the other way round.

The National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) has just released Tertiary Education and Training 2010, an annual publication that compares vocational education and training (VET) and higher education on a range of key measures.

It draws on data from the National VET Provider Collection and the Higher Education Statistics Collection.

One sector or two?
Australia’s higher education and VET sectors are vastly different, not just in what they deliver but structurally, financially and culturally. However, a more joined-up tertiary education sector is never far from the surface of policy debate.

Australia has a well-regarded qualifications framework that spans high school certificates to doctorates and a new, Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) – not a higher education one. The TEQSA Act currently excludes vocational education and training courses from its scope; however it includes diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees offered as higher education awards. These qualifications are offered in both sectors, resulting in a regulatory system where a course by the same name undergoes different quality assurance processes depending on the conferring institution.

Tertiary students at a glance
There were 3 million tertiary students in Australia in 2010 – 1.8 million VET students and 1.2 million higher education students.

In ‘full time equivalent’ terms (that is, by reducing actual student numbers to full time participation levels) there were 1.5 million tertiary students – half the enrolment number. This means that there are a lot of part time students in the system. In fact, 85% of VET students and 30% of higher education students are studying part time.

Women are slightly overrepresented in tertiary education; more than half (53%) of all tertiary students are female.

Demographically distinct sectors
There are some clear-cut demographic differences between the student populations in higher education and VET.

Higher education students are more likely to:
  • Be female (women represent 56% of higher education students versus 50% of VET students)
  • Be young (72% of higher education students are aged 24 years or less versus 51% of VET students)
  • Be international students (nearly a third – 29% - of higher education students are from overseas compared with just 6% of VET students).  
Vocational education and training students are more likely to:
  • Have a disability (7% of VET students have a disability versus 3% of higher education students)
  • Be Indigenous Australians (4% of VET students are Indigenous Australian versus 1% of higher education students)
  • Be in regional or remote areas (15% of VET students are outside big cities compared with only 5% of higher education students)
  • Face socio-economic disadvantage (15% of VET students were ‘most disadvantaged’ versus 10% of higher education students, and 16% were ‘least disadvantaged’ compared with 37% of higher education students).
It’s clear that vocational education and training plays a vital role in servicing client groups that are underrepresented in both employment and earnings outcomes.

This is territory that the higher education sector is also targeting. The Australian Government wants to increase the proportion of higher education students that come from disadvantaged (low socio-economic) backgrounds through its Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program. The goal is '20 per cent by 2020'.

Get your university degree – and then you’re ready for TAFE
Tertiary Education and Training 2010 reveals that almost twice as many graduates of higher education turn to vocational education and training than VET graduates who move on to higher education.

In 2010, 32,800 commencing VET students (7.1% of the cohort) already had a Bachelor degree to their name. About the same proportion (7.0%) but half as many students (16,700) commenced their higher education studies after earning a VET qualification.

What skills are university graduates gaining from subsequent VET studies? In its 2011 publication Pathways: Developing the skills of Australia’s workforce, NCVER analysed higher education to VET pathways. The data revealed that the biggest numbers of degree-qualified VET students are doing courses in ‘Management and commerce’ both at Certificate III/IV and Diploma level, and courses in ‘Education’. NCVER speculated that:
Management and commerce courses are potentially useful courses for students with university degrees who may be involved in the running of a business or in the public service. As mentioned previously, the certificate III/IV in the field of education may be associated with the mandating of qualifications for VET practitioners.
That fact that students with a bachelor degree on their resume turn to vocational education and training to top up their skills is a selling point for a sector that is often seen as a ‘second choice’.