Vocational vs higher education

(and 7 reasons why vocational training might be right for you)

Choosing to learn something new to further your career is a big deal. Whether you’re starting a new career, stepping up a level, or retraining for something different, you’ve got some major decisions ahead of you. One of the biggest choices you may have to make is between higher education and vocational training. Uni versus TAFE. A four-year program versus six months or a year. Getting deep into theory and ideas versus getting hands on with actual tasks.

There’s a lot to weigh up. The decision isn’t the same for everyone – not even two people who appear to have the same career goals. For example, some cultures value education differently. Some families have a particular attitude to training and what you need to do to ‘get ahead’. Some peoples’ life experiences and backgrounds are better suited to a particular type of learning. However, there are certain facts about higher ed and VET that are worth knowing before you decide which path to take.

In this article, we’ll explain some of the key definitions and facts you need to know about your training and education options, and why vocational training may just be your best option.

Vocational or higher education

What is vocational education?

Vocational education and training is practical.

It’s learning that’s done with the specific goal of preparing for a particular type of work. The end goal is for a graduate to be able to perform a particular task competently. A student is successful when they can demonstrate that they can do the thing – not when they can demonstrate that they understand facts and ideas about the thing.

Vocational education is sometimes referred to as:

  • Career education
  • Technical school
  • Apprentice training
  • Job training
  • Trade training

Vocational education is delivered by registered training organisations (RTOs), which includes TAFEs and private institutes/colleges. It can be formal or informal, casual or structured, depending on what country you’re in. In Australia, the structure is set by the Australian Quality Training Framework, the Australian Qualifications Framework and the Industry Training Packages. It is overseen by the national regulator ASQA (Australian Skills Quality Authority). There are lots of rules about teaching and assessment quality, what courses have to cover, and what students need to show in order to get a vocational qualification.

The level of structure can also be affected by the career field that the training leads to. For example, a tattoo apprentice may only have to do a single compulsory unit (safety and hygiene) to practice as a tattooist, while an electrician has to do to 22 compulsory units and dozens of electives get their initial license (more on ‘units’ later) – but their vocational training including supervised work may still come out to the same amount of time.

How is it different to higher education?

‘Higher education’ means learning at universities or similar establishments, especially to a degree level. In other words, it’s bachelor, master and doctorate courses. Like vocational education, it’s a type of tertiary education (think primary school, then secondary school, etc.). Both types of learning can involve textbooks, classrooms, and work placements – to some degree.

The main difference with higher education is that it’s mostly about knowledge, theory and thinking skills, as opposed to vocational ed, which is about practical job-specific skills.
For some jobs, where you need a lot of background knowledge and thinking skills to do the job properly, higher education is the only pathway. For example, doctors, teachers, engineers and lawyers need higher education. For most other jobs, there’s a vocational education pathway.

The key: vocational education and training

There’s another clue to the difference in the phrase itself: vocational education and training. ‘Training’ means a lot more than learning processes out of a textbook.

It means the chance to:

  • See how skills and tasks play out in the real world
  • Get personal perspectives on different practical challenges
  • Practice different tasks
  • Build on skills over time
  • Build self-confidence in ability to get the job done

These opportunities are built into vocational courses. For example, you might learn one part of a task, then practice it, then learn the other parts or steps and practice those, before you do the task for your assessment.

Think of it like training to compete in a new sport. You do start off with a bit of theory: the official rules of the game, the number of players/competitors, the positions, zones of the field, etc. Pretty soon though, you start practicing the individual skills you need to play the game: kicking, passing, throwing, or whatever it might be. Then you learn more on how to put it all together: teamwork, strategy options, etc. You then practice those skills by running drills with others. Finally, you show you can play the sport by participating and doing your part in a match.

What is a VET course?

‘VET’ simply stands for ‘vocational education and training’ (it’s got nothing to do with animal doctors or returned soldiers!). A VET course is any course within the vocational education framework in Australia. This can include short courses, skill sets, or whole vocational qualifications.

Vocational qualifications

Vocational qualifications include:

  • Certificate I
  • Certificate II
  • Certificate III
  • Certificate IV
  • Diploma
  • Advanced Diploma
  • (Vocational) Graduate Certificate
  • (Vocational) Graduate Diploma

There are over 1,400 different quals available at these eight levels, in different job areas, some with different specialisations. Each one is a different combination of standard units. Each one has its own core units and elective units. Some qualifications share lots of units with others, whilst some have their own unique units.

Each VET qualification is designed to get you job-ready for a different role. Generally, the higher the qualification level, the more senior or responsible the role. You can find out which qualification leads to the job you want by looking on a government website like My Skills Course Search or Job Outlook. If you’re simply aiming to work in a general area, not a specific role, you might have a number of different VET course options.

Other VET courses

VET courses can also include individual units, accredited courses, or units that are grouped together to become ‘skill sets’.

One of the most important things to note about VET courses and qualifications in Australia is that they’re nationally recognised. In other words, a qualification means the same thing in one state or territory as it does in another. When you’re doing the course, you learn the same things as a student doing the same course in another city. You can go to an employer on the other side of the country with your qualification, and they’ll understand the meaning and value of it.

Another good thing about the ‘nationally recognised’ system is that you can get credit transfer (course credit). Within certain limits (like time), an RTO has to give you credit towards a qualification for units you’ve already completed elsewhere. This means you’ve got a bit more flexibility if you want to stop and start study, or move locations. In contrast, unis more or less get to choose whether they’ll give you credit towards a qualification for things you’ve studied in the past.

Choosing a course

7 reasons to choose vocational training and education

1. Skills you can use right away

Vocational training is designed to get you job-ready. This means it gives you skills you can use as soon as you’re finished your course. In fact, you may find that if you’re studying and working at the same time, you start using your newfound skills at work before you’ve even finished your course.

In contrast, you will need to learn on the job after you finish a higher ed course. This might involve a lot of interning, work experience, or supervised work. Not all of this time will be spent learning and practicing the most important skills; you might end up spending a lot of time fetching coffees or doing photocopying. The concept of ‘paying your dues’ or ‘doing your time’ is pretty ingrained in a lot of professions, but you don’t have to spend that time doing stuff that seems irrelevant to the job you’ll eventually be doing. Make the most of those early years by doing a vocational course.

2. Ticket to work in your chosen field (licensing and regulation)

Many different jobs require you to be licensed or registered in order to do the job legally. And for many of these licenses or registrations, you have to have a VET qualification. For example, the minimum qualification to become an enrolled nurse is a Diploma of Nursing. In most states, the minimum qualification (alongside other requirements) to get an electrician’s licence is a Certificate III in Electrotechnology. In most states, the minimum training to work on a construction site is the unit CPCCWHS1001, also known as a ‘white card’. To register as a tax agent, the minimum possible education (alongside other requirements) is three board-approved courses (units) from approved providers. In most places, to serve alcohol in a hospitality role, you need the unit SITHFAB002 (responsible service of alcohol).

If there’s a specific job you want to get in to, it’s a good idea to get familiar with any minimum VET you need to do. You can look up the requirements on the website of the relevant government department, regulator, or industry association, or through the government websites mentioned above.

3. Faster path to career progress

Many VET courses, especially ones that don’t involve apprenticeship time or compulsory work experience, may be a faster path to a new career or a more senior job. Degree programs at university usually go for at least three years at undergraduate level.

In contrast, a Certificate course can be completed in as little as a few months. In fact, in some courses students are allowed to study at an accelerated pace. This means the qualification can be finished as quickly as the student can do all the required learning and assessment activities. In other courses, there are required minimum time frames to help make sure the knowledge has really sunk in.

Depending on your needs and goals, you can build up your qualifications over time whilst getting ahead in the workplace. So for example, you could start off in an entry-level role after doing a lower level certificate, then do the next level qualification and get a promotion, etc. Note that getting promotions with qualifications isn’t guaranteed, though many industry awards do specify that you get a slight pay rise if you get a higher qualification and are taking on more responsibilities. Make sure you check with your employer or a union rep before committing to a VET course for this reason.

4. Pathways and open options

Certificate and Diploma courses are designed to get you job-ready, but they’re also designed to help you keep your options open, especially with lower level qualifications. In contrast, with many uni degrees, you’re pretty much locked in to a specific job.

In some situations, a degree could even leave you over-qualified for some jobs. It might seem silly, but some employers could look at your degree achievement and assume you’d get bored, leave quickly for a better job, or want too much money. Some employers also say that they prefer less ‘book smart’ candidates, not because they’re not intelligent, but because they’re not locked in to a certain way of thinking that may come as a result of a degree course.

If you know what general area you want to work in, but you’re not sure exactly what job you want to get, a VET course could be the right starting point for you. You can always build up your education over time as you find out where your natural interests and talents lie. If you are unsure of exactly what level to start at, you can speak to a course counsellor or adviser at your chosen RTO. Alternatively, if you’re looking for independent advice, you may be able to speak to a recruiter or job services agency.

5. Skills that are in demand

In Australia, vocational education is checked and endorsed by industry representatives, including peak bodies, professional associations and employers.

This happens in a couple of different ways. First, industry committees (via skills services organisations, or SSOs) are in charge of endorsing training packages for their particular industries.

Training packages are made up of units of competency, a qualifications framework, and assessment guidelines. Any industry stakeholder that wants to get involved in developing or changing the qualifications for their industry can get in touch with their relevant SSO. So basically, industry organisations decide what’s going to be included in VET courses, and how the assessments are going to work.

Then, each RTO is required to engage with industry advisors for each of their course areas. This means they have to find suitably qualified and distinguished individuals or companies to consult with, to check that the content of their courses is relevant, useful and up to date.

What this means overall is that the skills that are covered in VET courses are the skills that employers actually want and need. The courses change regularly as industry needs and priorities change.

6. Better value for money

This is a very individual matter, but often, a VET course can be better value for money than a higher ed course. In other words, it either:

    • costs less to get to the same job/career outcome, or
    • costs less to study enough to get an entry-level job, or
    • costs less to study full time for the same length of time.

For example, the minimum time to get a job from a uni course might be a few years (for a degree program) and several thousand dollars. The minimum time to get a job from a VET course might be a day to a week, and a couple of hundred dollars (think: those one-unit tickets in point 2 above). Or say you wanted to work in nursing. You could do a VET course (a Diploma) to become an enrolled nurse and start working after 18 months. Even if you then worked and studied to become a registered nurse at the same time, your total study time and cost could be much lower than if you went straight in to a Bachelor. Or say you were aiming to become a tax agent. You could get a Diploma, two board-approved courses and two years of relevant experience (~3 years), or you could get a degree in accounting, two board-approved courses and one year of relevant experience (~4 years).

Some universities offer advanced placement or course credit for certain VET courses. How this generally works is that after a VET course that lasts a year or so, you skip a year’s worth of the degree. What’s important here is that a year of VET study is usually much more affordable than a year of uni study (depending on provider’s fees and funding options, of course).

7. More flexibility

There are lots of rules and regulations around the way VET courses are delivered, to help protect the students’ interest and maintain the integrity of the qualifications. Some of these rules mean that students get extra flexibility, concessions, support and other negotiable benefits that they may not be able to get in a uni course.

For example, learning and assessment options may be customised to suit individual or workplace needs. This means an employer can come to an RTO and negotiate training that’s particularly suitable for the work site or workplace challenges, perhaps including specific examples, choices of electives, practice opportunities, etc. In some situations, a student can do their assessment while carrying out paid work duties. The assessor may come in to the workplace to observe them carrying out task, or the student may do written assessment tasks with reference to their current workplace.

Uni courses often have very strict timetables; it’s read this chapter this week, watch this lecture on this day, do this assessment by this date, etc. In contrast, VET courses usually have some built-in flexibility. As long as the student completes their assessments by a certain deadline, they may be free to study at their own pace, meaning they can fit learning in to their existing busy schedule.

Learning online

VET or higher ed?: Quiz

Still not sure whether a technical or vocational course is right for you? Answer these questions…

1. I prefer to learn new things by…
A. Experiencing / trying straight away
B. Doing a bit of watching or research before trying for myself
C. Doing lots of reading and questioning to make sure I understand first

2. Exploring ideas, theories and ways of thinking makes me feel…
A. Bored and restless
B. So-so; a bit ‘meh’
C. Excited and switched-on

3. The type of work I want to do is…
A. Very hands-on and practical
B. A little bit of paperwork, but mostly practical
C. Mostly knowledge-based

4. I’m most interested in…
A. Getting a job or a promotion ASAP
B. Getting a job/promotion, but leaving my study options open
C. Taking time to really develop my knowledge and expertise

5. I need to work on basic skills like communication, using computers, and working with others…
A. A lot – I’m starting from zero, but that’s OK!
B. A little, but I have some basic skills already
C. Not much; I’m pretty confident

Results

Mostly A: A VET course is your best bet
Your answers indicate that vocational education is right for you. Now all you need to do is find the course that’s right for your needs and interests!

Mostly B: Start with a vocational course now (but keep your options open)
Your answers indicate that a VET course is right for you now, but uni might be in your future at some point. To keep your options open, look at Certificate and Diploma courses, but think about which ones also offer pathways/credit towards uni courses.

Mostly C: You might be best starting at uni

Your answers indicate that you might be best suited to higher ed – at least to start with. However, that doesn’t mean that you’ll never do a VET course. For example, you might upskill with a VET qualification in management to get ahead in the workplace, after you’ve finished your degree and been working for a bit. Some uni students also do Certificate or Diploma courses at the same time as a uni course, to get practical skills that complement the knowledge they’re getting. For example, they may do a diploma course in a foreign language.