Across the industrialised world, the emergence of a “skills gap” has led to renewed interest in vocational education. Schoolteachers with the best of intentions push children toward university, sometimes regardless of the child’s interest or specific abilities. This has led to not only a steep decline in young people entering the trades but also what some call a devaluation of work itself.

Experts, however, do not advocate for students to abandon university education. Students should realistically examine their own strengths, salaries in potential trades fields versus those requiring college, length of education needed to get into a field, and student debt relative to salary in a future profession.

Australia faces a skills gap crisis. From healthcare to the trades, national estimates indicate that shortages loom on the horizon. New South Wales, for example, speculates that the state will need 84,000 nurses and midwives by 2030, but may only have a little over 70,000. The nation already faces shortages of auto mechanics, welders, machinists, and many other basic fields.

Understanding differences between higher and vocational education can help lead to better choices, not only by students, but also from policymakers, teachers, and parents.

Social Stigma Attached to Vocational Education

Vocational education struggles against entrenched mythology. The most damaging myth lies in the idea that university degree holders alone drive the economy. According to the Business Council of Australia, “‘When young people leave school, the question is not ‘what am I good at?’ but ‘I want to go to university, what course will I do?’” This stems from the idea that university degrees automatically bring higher salaries than the trades. Certainly, this remains true in some selected fields. Humanities degrees, however, rarely bring salaries that rise above what an industrious plumber, electrician, or welder can earn.

The stigma extends to social status as well. Many parents, particularly in the urban middle class, feel that a child not attending university equals failure on their part. They often nudge their children away from vocational interests and toward university, often to the eventual detriment of the student.

Universities benefit from an educational prestige that they rightly have earned. Many of their degrees do offer value, even with student debt and time spent in school factored in. They do not offer, however, the right fit for every student. Unfortunately, the stigma attached to vocational education steers too many to universities that take too much money and time to poorly prepare many students who would have done much better with vocational education.

Basic Differences Between Vocational and Higher Education Programmes

Both higher education and vocational programmes can trace roots back to Medieval Europe. University originally referred to any location where education took place but evolved into institutions offering not only specific fields of study but also the opportunity to get a balanced education in necessary topics. European guilds developed the apprenticeship model to ensure quality workmanship in fields as varied as carpentry and brewing.

Vocational and higher education services must both comply with TEQSA mandates, but fulfil educational requirements in different ways.

Today, higher education offers hundreds of possible fields of study. It also, however, continues to require that each student pass general education courses designed to expose the mind to science, literature, history, mathematics, and other fields regardless of course of study. They confer associates, bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees.

Vocational education continues to offer specialised education and training but has built upon the apprenticeship model. In Australia, students can earn levels of certification. Levels I and II recognise basic proficiency in a field and may require anywhere from a few weeks to months of coursework. Students earning level III and IV certifications will usually have studied between six months to a year. Vocational students may also receive diplomas and advanced diplomas after one to two years of study.

Those receiving level III and IV certifications, as well as diplomas, can apply their learning toward higher education degrees at most universities.

Vocational education also emphasises hands-on, workplace style experience. Students spend more time doing supervised training with equipment and less studying theory and practice. They often benefit from having instructors who still work in the field. This gives vocational education an immediacy and applicability sometimes not found from university professors and programmes.

Vocational Education Focus on Workforce Skills Development

Australia’s skills gap surfaces in a wide variety of fields at both the national and regional level. Given latitude and support, each institution can more nimbly and effectively create programmes that fit needs even at the local level. Vocational schools can quickly develop partnerships with businesses and other entities to create certifications tailor-made to specific needs. Universities have larger bureaucracies and move more slowly to create programmes. Also, specific skills education for a short time runs against the university ideal of a broad and balanced education.

Vocational Education Helps Non-University Attending Young People While Addressing  Regional and National “Skills Gap” Problem

Not every brilliant student thrives in a traditional university classroom environment. The ultimate tradesman in history, Czar Peter the Great of Russia, never set foot in one, but mastered trades from carpentry to dentistry. Vocational education ranks should grow not only from those who got wrongly steered to university, but also young people who gave up on education past high school because university style education did not appeal to them.

Short term certifications offer paths to good paying and sometimes even lucrative careers. Convincing more young people who learn best with their hands to embrace vocational education should expand the ranks of tradespeople, healthcare staff, and other fields vital to the national economy. Today’s high school students would benefit from clear understanding of the options of vocational and university education. From vocational study, they can learn a skill, obtain a good paying job, and avoid debt. Furthermore, they do not face the opportunity cost of years of salary lost to irrelevant study just to get a position that could have been obtained with a certification.

That being said, the longer time spent in a university studying certain fields confers advantages not found in vocational education. While those who work to maintain a bridge can make good money from vocational certifications, those who design them should study engineering and related subjects for many years before entering the job market.

Vocational Education Has a Different Student Environment Than Traditional Universities

Student lifestyles also mark a major difference between vocational education and traditional universities. At most universities, the majority of students reside in dormitories and eat in student cafeterias. Most of their life gets spent in and revolves around the university campus. This creates in many students a type of cloistering effect. Universities have for centuries developed their own campus culture.

The era of social media has also created elements of a universal campus culture, linking students of schools across the nation and the world. While this creates a tremendous intellectual ferment that can potentially spawn great ideas and concepts, it has also fostered increasing intolerance of social viewpoints common off campus.

Vocational education does not usually permit students to live on campus. They are more likely to hold a job and raise children while studying. Most live either with parents or on their own. Vocational education students more often share in the culture of their surrounding community rather than participate in a specific higher education environment.

Finally, deep rifts grow between the values of the university and society in general, sometimes creating clashes that spill into politics. Vocational education rarely fosters heightened controversy because the culture and values of students and faculty tend to not deviate as much from the surrounding community.

Other Nations Have Taken Action to Expand Vocational Education

Other industrialised nations have led the charge to reinvigorate technical education. Germany has always invested not only funding but also the perception of status into vocational education.

When the United States identified its own critical skills gap, state and federal legislators went into action. Students in vocational education programs received more financial assistance. Also, US Representative Alex Mooney devised a bill supporting recruitment of mid-career trades professionals to teach vocational education across America. Republican majorities in state and federal legislative chambers will likely continue to support President Trump’s emphasis on vocational education at all levels.

Meanwhile, the UK plans to expand their number of apprenticeships by 3 million in the next two years with the cooperation of major corporations.

Should Australia follow suit, this will change the landscape of education regulations and funding. Higher education and vocational schools will need TEQSA consultants more than ever as changes take place. Consultants can help vocational education providers work to preserve the freedom to forge partnerships with those who need skilled graduates the most. Another factor could be international schools registering as higher education providers for either traditional university or vocational students. This could also spark new efforts at regulation and guidance from the government.

Higher education services should remain a priority, but the economy needs to continue developing vocational education programmes to keep Australia among the top rank of productive industrialised nations.