OECD: Not all students are best served by a university degree

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

With the HSC upon us once again, some 76,000 NSW students are considering life after school. For this year’s cohort, university will remain a popular choice, with hundreds of students even receiving offers before exams begin.

However, for many students, what’s next remains up in the air. It’s not uncommon for students in this camp to feel pressured to find a suitable university option, but it’s not the right path for every student.

Pressure to choose university felt across OECD nations

In a recent blog, I discussed some preliminary research that tentatively indicated students with an ATAR under 70 might do better in vocational education and training (VET). And now, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has published a report, Education at a Glance, that has further highlighted the issue amongst developed nations:

“… not all students are best served by a tertiary degree. The general increase in tertiary attainment may have led employers to expect a tertiary degree as the new normal, pushing students who would benefit more from vocational education and training (VET) into academic tertiary education instead.” (p. 9)

Preparing NSW students for post-school life should be about choice

The NSW education system exists to prepare young people for rewarding lives as engaged citizens in a complex and dynamic society. For me, this is about helping each student reach their individual potential, putting them on the pathway to a lifelong, fulfilling career.  

And that looks different for everyone. Yet, there seems to be a tendency to guide students toward university degree options.

For me, there are three intertwined drivers of this growing trend. 

Firstly, schools are measured on the percentage of students accepted into university as part of ranking systems. By reporting on this, it becomes a perceived indicator of success.

Of course, the accurate measure of a school’s success would be how many students are thriving in their post-school lives, but this is simply too difficult to quantify. It comes down to the old saying that 'not everything that can be measured matters, and not everything that matters can be measured’.

Secondly, post-school options such as VET are often considered poor cousins to university in schools and at home. As a result, many students are simply not aware of their options because they aren’t openly discussed.

And thirdly, we could do more to promote and grow our VET system, building on solid foundations to deliver the skills of the future.

A world-class VET system could build the workforce of the future

As the OECD report put it, “… vocational upper secondary programmes that can compete with tertiary education in terms of quality and labour-market outcomes are important, but they remain rare. Making VET a first choice rather than a last resort for students requires new links between upper secondary VET and professional tertiary education …”

Australia has a fantastic VET system that produces graduates with the capabilities to thrive in areas as diverse as traditional trades, hospitality, engineering and healthcare. However, there is more work to be done and we can learn a lot from overseas programs, particularly when it comes to building solid structures and pathways.

Australia can look to overseas counterparts

In Germany and Switzerland, for example, vocational education is embedded in the school systems. This means students can make deliberate choices to follow vocational career paths earlier in their school lives and are given opportunities to balance school studies and on-the-job learning.

In fact, in Switzerland, almost two-thirds of youth complete an apprenticeship, and vocational education is credited with driving innovation amongst SME businesses across the country.

In addition, strong links between industry and vocational education are fuelling better outcomes and even helping with funding. For example, German car manufacturer, Audi, participates in the country’s dual degree program, offering apprenticeships across some 17 professions, from technician to healthcare roles.

And in many countries, including the UK, higher-level apprenticeships are building more pathways and making apprenticeships attractive to a wider range of students. Students earn while they learn and build real-world skills in the workplace while studying bachelor and even masters-level degrees in a wide range of fields, from business to ICT, civil engineering to health and life sciences.

When it comes to the skills of the future, Australia, like many countries, is at a crossroads. It is a pivotal moment, and how we educate future generations is a hot topic. It’s the perfect time to review our focus on university as the primary option for HSC students and look for ways we can help each student reach their potential.  Doing so will help us deliver the right outcomes for individuals, industry and the Australian economy.