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Vocational education vs. Higher education: what's the difference?

By Jana Angeles

Depending on your career goals and what profession you want to pursue, it all depends on a number of factors and how much time you want to commit to studying. Perhaps you’re just figuring out what your passions are, or haven’t taken much thought in what you want in a career. 

If you’re still deciding what study options best suits you, SkillsTalk go deep into finding out the differences between vocational and higher education to help you decide what study pathway will best suit you when achieving your career goals.

What is vocational education?

Vocational Education and Training (VET) qualifications have been designed for students to reach the specific goal of gaining knowledge and skills for work.

VET courses are suited for those:
  • Wishing to return to work. They could be a parent returning to work because they were raising their family or someone who has taken a career break and wanting to build relevant knowledge and skills in their desired industry.
  • Looking to join the workforce. They could be a person who has recently finished Year 12 and want to get a job straight away and need a qualification but aren’t committed to completing a bachelor’s degree just yet.
  • Needing additional skills to boost their career. A person may be a seasoned professional but have the desire to gain additional skills that will help them get ahead in their career. For example, a marketing professional may want to study social media marketing to open more career opportunities, or a team leader wanting to better manage and lead others through an online management course

3 signs vocational education is right for you

  1. You prefer a “hands-on” approach to learning.
  2. You value flexibility.
  3. You are looking to develop your skills but are time-poor.
The National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) ran a survey last year with 143 852 respondents and it produced interesting results, highlighting the reasons why people undertook vocational education and documented whether or not they were satisfied with the outcomes since completing a qualification. Here is what was found:
  • 29.6% undertook a VET course to get a job.
  • 71% of people who were employed received at least one-job related benefit after course completion. For example, receiving more remuneration due to further study.
  • 86.8% were satisfied with the quality of training they received within the VET sector.
With the results mentioned above, many people study VET courses for many reasons. However, it all depends on a person’s circumstances and what their preferred learning style is. If you’re not quite sure whether vocational education is right for you, these are some of the reasons why it may be worthwhile undertaking this study pathway.

1. You prefer a “hands-on” approach to learning.

If you’re someone that is self-motivated and have the mindset of “doing” rather than reading and writing, then a VET course may suit you better than a uni degree. A hands-on approach to learning means that the skills and knowledge you learn from a VET qualification can be applied to real-work practices

In most cases, undertaking a VET course can help you gain other skills that may be useful to you, especially if you will be working in an office. There may be generic-based topics you’ll cover such as workplace health and safety, which can be found in most business courses. To sum it up, if you prefer practicality over theory work, doing a VET course may be in your best interest. 

2. You value flexibility.

african american woman studying online

One of the known benefits that set VET courses apart from university degrees is that you have the option of flexibility when it comes to the way you study. 

Upskilled is a Registered Training Organisation (RTO) offering online courses for busy people wanting to study but need a more flexible schedule because they are either raising a family, working full-time or are self-employed with an inconsistent working schedule. 

One of the major upsides of studying with Upskilled is that most of the courses offered are designed to be completed within 12 months, meaning that you can receive nationally recognised training that can help boost your credentials and can kickstart your career by gaining relevant knowledge and skills. 

With video partners such as LinkedIn Learning and Pluralsight, you will have access to additional video material that will help you complete assessments. You also have the support of a trainer who will assist when necessary when it comes to course content and have the student support team available to contact when you come across an issue throughout your student journey. 

Studying a VET course is a great study pathway for those wishing to change careers and rejoin the workforce without compromising their current schedules due to the flexible delivery. 

3. You are looking to develop your skills but are time-poor.

With a busy schedule, it can be daunting thinking about all those years you have to sacrifice when studying for a bachelor's degree. 

However, a big advantage of undertaking a VET course is that usually you can get a qualification in 12 months or less depending on your progress. Since vocational education focuses highly on practical skills and knowledge, you will only study what is relevant to the specific industry you want to work in. 

Online learning has the great perk of being able to accelerate your studies, so you can focus on achieving the desired goal of working the career you want while still having a qualification at hand. This works great if you’re time-poor and prefer taking a course that is shorter but still want to receive quality education and gain industry-specific skills similar to a university degree.

What is higher education?

Higher education is also known in Australia as tertiary education. Universities, Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutes and Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) provide higher education in the form of bachelor degrees, graduate certificates and graduate diplomas. Many jobs require higher education qualifications.

Higher education courses are suited for those:
  • Interested in a specialisation. A person wanting to specialise may need a degree from a university or similar. They could be specialising in law, commerce, business and medicine and are wanting to be more specific when it comes to their career goals. A degree can be beneficial, especially in a job market where a university degree is a minimum requirement. 
  • Intending to build a career in research. If a person is highly academic and is interested in pursuing a career as a researcher or lecturer at a university or similar institute, studying a higher education course may provide this opportunity since there is more availability to undertake master and PhD qualifications. 
  • Pursuing a career that requires a degree. Whether an individual wishes to pursue a career as a registered nurse or physiotherapist, these jobs require a higher education qualification as the competencies covered are found in bachelor degrees.

3 signs higher education is right for you

  1. You are looking to specialise.
  2. It is a minimum requirement to have a degree.
  3. You prefer learning in a classroom. 
Last year, Ministers for the Department of Education sent out a media release highlighting some of the university graduate outcomes for those who took part in the survey. The results had more focus on employment and salary outcomes. Here is what was found:
  • Approximately 90% of university graduates were working full-time, earning a median salary of $70,000 within three years of finishing their course.
  • 80% of undergraduates in full-time work held managerial or professional roles three years after graduating.
The results above suggest that higher education graduates have secured mostly full-time work and have progressed into more senior positions after course completion, while earning a decent salary. 

However, do keep in mind it depends on the area of study they undertook as well as the type of jobs they are doing and if it’s related to their course (you’d be surprised how many university graduates end up in jobs that are not related to what they studied). 

If you haven’t made up your mind about whether you should take up higher education, these are some signs that it may be the study pathway worth considering.

1. You are looking to specialise.

If you’re pursuing a career in a more specialised career path like law, medicine or dentistry then higher education may suit you better. With careers such as these, it takes a while to earn a qualification and you may need to do further study to officially work in the chosen field. One of the benefits of specialising is that you will learn specific skills that is meant for that career path. 

2. It is a minimum requirement to have a degree.

graduation caps in air

Particularly in the health field, having a degree is a minimum requirement to be eligible when it comes to being a registered professional. It’s best practice to look at the type of jobs you dream of having before you decide on a course so you can see for yourself what academic requirements are needed from you. 

In this day and age, employers value job candidates that have studied a course and has relevant industry experience. Depending on the industry you desire to work in, it’s important to do research and see if having a degree is standard and often needed to be considered for a job.  

3. You prefer learning in a classroom. 

If you prefer face-to-face learning and value class contributions, as well as meeting and collaborating with new people, doing a higher education course may best suit you as a preferred mode of study. Furthermore, you will be able to ask your lecturer/tutor questions first hand when it comes to assessments and get extra guidance from your peers. 

Also, degrees tend to focus largely on collaboration so you may be required to work with people within your cohort, taking you outside of your comfort zone.

Haven’t decided on a study path?

Whether you’re fresh out of high school and looking to join the workforce, or simply want to specialise for a specific job you’ve had in mind, Upskilled has an excellent range of courses to choose from if you want more flexibility when it comes to your studies. 

Contact one of Upskilled's education consultants and learn how a qualification could be a pathway to university. 
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*By providing your information, you agree to our Privacy Policy and to receiving email and other forms of communication from Upskilled. You are able to opt-out at any time.