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You are reading: Who studies for a degree at a vocational institution?

Paul Koshy 1, Sue Webb2, Mike Dockery3 and Lizzie (Elizabeth) Knight4

The offering of bachelor degree qualifications by Australian vocational institutions continues to emerge as a non-traditional pathway for higher education participation. Yet the motivations of school students who complete vocational bachelor degrees has been understudied in Australia.

To address this, a recent Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project, Vocational Institutions, Undergraduate Degrees, based at Monash University, sought to investigate the delivery of higher education by vocational institutions across Australia.

This paper reports on a study arising from that project. It examined the factors contributing to post-compulsory education participation among school leavers over the previous decade, be it at a university or in a vocational institution.

The study utilised data from the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY), which included a small sub-sample of school leavers who undertook bachelor degree studies in vocational institutions.

It focused on the Y09 (2009) LSAY cohort—as data from nine waves (collection points over time) were available for that group—providing observations on participants from the initial wave when they were 15 or 16 years of age, through to the ninth when they were aged around 23. This provided sufficient data on their post-secondary activities. The data set was used to analyse educational transitions across four specific vocational and higher education pathways:

  • University degree — those participants who were observed to be studying towards a bachelor degree or higher at university. This group may have also studied towards lower vocational qualifications at some point. We excluded vocational degree participants from this group.
  • Vocational bachelor degree — those participants who were observed to be studying towards a bachelor degree and the institute at which they were studying was a vocational institution outside the Australian university sector.
  • Higher vocational qualification — those participants who were not observed at any point to be studying for a bachelor degree or higher in either the vocational sector or university, but were observed at some point to be studying towards a diploma, advanced diploma or associate degree at a vocational institution or university.
  • Lower vocational qualification — those participants who were observed to be in a course and working towards a vocational certificate (Level 2, 3 or 4), and who were never observed to be studying towards one of the qualifications listed above.

Participants were allocated to one of these groups on a mutually exclusive and hierarchical basis, with vocational degree status—a focus of this paper—taking precedence over university degree status which, in turn, takes precedence over higher vocational qualifications, and finally lower vocational qualifications. Individuals were assigned to a group based on the highest ranked course attempted, coded by commencement and irrespective of whether the course was completed.

The analysis looked at the probability of students undertaking a vocational bachelor degree compared with each of the three alternatives, with the same group of explanatory variables in each case, including variables on: gender, non-English speaking background (NESB) status, sole parent household status and Indigenous status. We also included variables on participant self-reporting on plans to go to university and participant self-reporting on school performance, as well as LSAY measures of household wealth and self-reporting on cultural possessions ownership (books, computers, etc.). To examine the impact of schools, we also included a variable on school sector (government, Catholic and private).

The analysis confirmed the similarity between students undertaking degrees in vocational institutions and universities, with virtually no statistical difference observed between the two groups compared with those undertaking lower or higher vocational qualifications.

Gender played a strong role in shaping bachelor participation in vocational institutions, with male LSAY participants having a substantially higher likelihood than females of undertaking a vocational degree compared to either a higher vocational qualification (almost twice as likely) or university degree. For the school leaver cohort, which represents 64 per cent of the vocational degree student load, this accords somewhat with what we know about gender representation in vocational education and university higher education (a larger female majority) in Australia.

Household wealth had a significant and negative impact on the probability of undertaking a bachelor degree versus a higher vocational qualification in a vocational institution. In contrast, no significant results were observed in relation to the cultural possessions index in any of the models. We also found no statistically significant effects associated with NESB, sole parent household, or Indigenous status.

Participant perceptions of their academic performance and future education trajectory played a strong role in their choices. More favourable self-assessments of school performance at age 15 or 16 were associated with a greater chance of undertaking a bachelor qualification relative to either level of vocational qualification, but a lower (but not significant) chance of undertaking a bachelor degree at a vocational institution rather than at university. Further, an expressed expectation of entering university at age 15 or 16 (“plans to go to university”) was both a strong, and highly significant, indicator of future student enrolment in a bachelor degree at a vocational institution, in comparison to studying for a vocational qualification. A participant who indicated in Year 10 that they planned to go to university was five times more likely to undertake a vocational bachelor degree instead of a lower vocational qualification, compared to those who did not.

The inclusion of a series of variables for school sector indicated that attendance at a Catholic school was both a strong, and statistically significant, factor in affecting the decision to undertake a vocational bachelor degree rather than a vocational qualification, in comparison with attendance at a government school.

These findings confirmed critical patterns in both aspiration among, and capacity of, school-aged students to engage with higher education systems. Participants who ultimately entered bachelor programs in vocational institutions were found to have plans to enter university and self-assessments of academic ability which exceeded those ultimately undertaking traditional vocational qualification pathways, but were below those who undertook bachelor qualifications at university. Importantly, the modelling revealed no statistically significant differences between the populations of vocational degree students and university degree students on these dimensions, indicating that choice of institutional sector (university or vocational institution) was a broad area of consideration among students entering bachelor programs over the past decade.

A finding of note in relation to status was the common propensity of non-government school students to enter bachelor programs, at university or a vocational institution, but with Catholic schools seeing far stronger representation in vocational institution enrolment. This finding, coupled with unidentifiable effects around cultural possession ownership and household wealth variables, indicates that school resourcing in relation to post-compulsory educational planning might be playing a significant role in shaping decisions around novel or newer pathway options for students.

This research raises issues around how we view widening participation in higher education in Australia. While we are told that issues around equity are complicated but understandable—and from a policy perspective, discernible—the reality is more complex. This is particularly the case at the fringe of higher education delivery, and especially obvious in the Australian divide between higher and vocational education policy making. Analysing the system in totality means including vocational pathways in the analysis and discussion of higher education alternatives.

Study Reference: Koshy, P., Webb, S., Dockery, M., & Knight, E. (2021). Bachelor’s Degree Participation in Vocational Institutions: Examining the determinants of participation. International Journal of Training Research.

Project Reference: Webb, S., Rawolle, S., Hodge, S., Gale, T., Bathmaker, A-M., Knight, E., & Parker, S. (2019). Degrees of Difference, Examining the Scope, Provision and Equity Effects of Degrees in Vocational Institutions. Interim Project Report. Melbourne: Monash University.

1National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University
2Faculty of Education, Monash University
3Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, Curtin University
4Centre for International Research on Education Systems (CIRES), Victoria University