Prove your humanity

University is not the place for everyone—a reality that we need to address. The average cost of a university degree in Australia for domestic students is between $20,000-40,000. The debt students accumulate throughout their university studies can often be discouraging especially since many graduates start off their professional careers in entry level jobs that pay similar to what they could have earned without a degree.

Earlier this year the income threshold for repaying university debts under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) dropped by more than 11 per cent. This was the second largest percentage drop since the HECS scheme was established. Anyone with an annual income that exceeds $45,881 is expected to immediately start repaying their student loans.

Australia has been struggling with a skills shortage in areas that require Vocational Education and Training (VET). The Shadow Minister for Education and Training, Tanya Plibersek has expressed concerns about the shortages in skilled trades. Plibersek stated that the estimated 1.8 million people who are unemployed or underemployed could be trained to benefit from the increasing demand for trade jobs. Plibersek has criticised the coalition for substantially cutting funding to the VET sector saying that it is not acceptable for a skills shortage to exist while unemployment and underemployment is high in young people.

Counties like Germany and Switzerland have had low youth unemployment rates. In both countries almost two thirds of young people participate in vocational training. The emphasis on vocational education and training has resulted in them producing an excellent workforce. However, in Australia there is generally more of an emphasis in pursuing a university education. If Australia would like to achieve similar outcomes, it needs to invest more in making vocational education more appealing to young people.

The VET sector is critical to boosting the Australian economy. Through partnering with industries and the government it prepares people with the workplace specific skills and knowledge needed for the current and future employment demands. This is an overall advantage that the VET sector has over universities.

In Australia technical and further education institutions commonly referred to as TAFE have unfortunately developed an image as the “poor second cousins” of universities. There are many misconceptions about the VET industry and what it offers, areas that people are often misinformed about are employability, earning capacity and course relevance. This has led to many young people thinking that a university degree is the only viable option to develop a good career.

A study conducted in 2017 by the Skilling Australia Foundation found that 21 per cent of Australians believed that one of the main reasons people chose university over VET/TAFE courses was the perception that VET graduates received lower wages. It was also found that 68 per cent of these Australians believed that VET graduates earned $10,000 or less when compared to the average university graduate. Additionally, around 31 per cent believed that the wage gap was more than $20,000.

However, the study reported that the median full-time income of a VET graduate was $56,000.4 while the median graduate salary for a university student was $54,000.5. The study observed that VET graduates earn wages similar to university graduates and in some instances can exceed them.

Another common misconception held by some is that the VET sector only focuses on physical labour trades. This is not the case, there are plenty of opportunities across many industries such as aviation, finance, healthcare, engineering and technology to name a few.

The purpose of vocationally training is to prepare people to enter the workplace already knowing the skills required. Due to TAFE/VET courses being heavily subsidised by the government, the courses on average are significantly cheaper than university degrees. Other benefits of learning a Trade is the opportunity to earn throughout your vocational training.

Earlier this year Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that, “TAFE is as good as uni.” This was an effort to encourage young Australians to learn a trade instead of going to university. Morrison talked about the importance of improving the status and perception of vocational education in Australia. His government has expressed that it is looking to the VET sector to help supply the workforce for the estimated 1.25 million jobs they are planning on creating in the next five years.

The image problem that the VET sector suffers has meant that people whose talents and interests are more suited towards VET/TAFE courses are missing out on these opportunities. The government should give greater importance to the accessibility of information regarding vocational education and the career prospects it can provide.

The debate is often very simplistically focused on which is better University or TAFE? There is no right or wrong answer, but it is interesting that an increasingly entrepreneurial society that encourages taking risks continues to stigmatise career pathways other than university, particularly vocational education.