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Missing links: the fragmented relationship between tertiary education and jobs

By Leesa Wheelahan, Mary Leahy, Nick Fredman, Gavin Moodie, Sophie Arkoudis, Emmaline Bexley Research report 17 October 2012 ISBN 978 1 922056 26 9

Description

This report explores the transitions students make in undertaking a second qualification (i.e. whether they change field of education and/or move between the VET and higher education sectors). It also looks at the reasons why they decide to undertake another qualification. A combination of data from the Survey of Education and Training and interviews is used to look at these transitions in four industry areas – finance, primary industry, health and electrical trades/engineering. Overall, the extent that students stay within a particular field of education depends on whether there are well defined occupational pathways within the field. This work is part of the three-year research program Vocations: the link between post compulsory education and the labour market.

Summary

About the research

This report is part of a wider three-year program of research, 'Vocations: the link between postcompulsory education and the labour market', which is investigating the educational and occupational paths that people take and how their study relates to their work. It is specifically interested in exploring the transitions that students make in undertaking a second qualification (that is, whether they change field of education and/or move between the VET and higher education sectors). It also looks at the reasons why they decide to undertake another qualification.

The authors use a combination of data from the 2009 Australian Bureau of Statistics Survey of Education and Training and interviews with students and graduates, as well as managers, careers advisors, learning advisors, teachers and academics, to examine these transitions. The finance, primary, health and electrical trades/engineering industries are used as case studies.

Key messages

  • Some fields of education have tight links to the workplace (for example, nursing), while others have a much weaker relationship with specific jobs, such as in finance and agriculture.
  • The extent to which students stay within their initial field of education depends on how narrowly vocational the field of education is. Those with well-defined occupational pathways tend to stay within their field of education when undertaking their second qualification.
  • Students' reasons for undertaking an initial and subsequent qualification are dominated by workrelated imperatives.
  • Typically, students follow educational pathways for two main reasons: first, because the first credential allows entry into the higher program; and, second, to build confidence in their ability to study.

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

This is a report of the first year of a three-year project entitled 'Vocations: the link between postcompulsory education and the labour market'. The project's aim is to research how pathways can be improved within education, within work, and between education and work. There are three strands in the project: the first strand is researching entry-level vocational education and training (VET), particularly VET in Schools; the second is researching the role of tertiary educational institutions in fostering vocations; and the third is researching how to improve flows within work and how to improve occupational pathways and vocations within the labour market. This report outlines Strand 2's initial findings. The three strands are analysing four industry case studies: finance, primary industry, health and electrical trades/engineering.

Attempts to improve pathways between VET and higher education have focused on relations between the two sectors, between educational institutions, and between the state and Commonwealth governments, which are responsible for VET and higher education, respectively. However, this is only part of the picture. A key determining feature of educational pathways is the structure of the labour market. Where there are strong occupational pathways, strong educational pathways will follow. Apart from the regulated occupations, where criteria for entry and progression are specified by professional or occupational bodies, the Australian labour market is segmented and has weak occupational pathways. The relative absence of these pathways has been exacerbated by an increase in higher- and lower-skilled jobs and a decline in jobs at the intermediate level. This is reflected in the declining importance of the diploma as a labour market entry qualification. Some jobs that previously required diplomas for entry level increasingly now require degrees. The segmentation of the labour market reflects segmentation in educational pathways and the weak relationship between education and jobs. Overall, and again apart from the regulated occupations, relations between education and specific jobs are very weak and most VET graduates do not end up in the jobs associated with their qualification. Most policies that attempt to improve pathways focus only on education and not on the structure of the labour market or the relationship between the two.

This report investigates these issues from the perspective of students, teachers, support staff, and managers in educational institutions, and of graduates from those institutions. It examines student flows within fields of education, within educational sectors and between sectors. While 'getting a job' is students' and graduates' central concern, this is part of their broader priorities, values and desires for the future. The report finds that students use educational pathways for two main reasons: the first is to gain the credentials to enter a higher-level program, and the second is to build their confidence in their ability to study (and often both).

Educational pathways are intrinsic to productivity, lifelong learning, occupational progression and to helping students to realise their goals. However, they can take a very long time for students to complete, and many don't last the distance. Successful student transition is undermined by the different curriculum models in VET and higher education, and there are specific problems with students' level of preparation in mathematics.

While essential, educational pathways cannot overcome social inequality and the absence of occupational pathways. Work placements are intrinsic to learning for work, but they are difficult to find and their quality is variable. This reflects the absence of structured and corporatised relations between employers, employee bodies, educational institutions and government, which specify responsibilities, including resourcing.

There are implications for the nature of qualifications and for the way relationships between education and work are structured. While a focus on educational policies, governance and structures and institutional relationships between VET and higher education is essential to improving educational pathways and improving links between education and work, it is also necessary to focus on the way labour is deployed at work and the way work placements are structured, while recognising that learning needs to support and not supplant the employer's main business.

The report concludes by suggesting that there may be merit in investigating whether flows within education, within work and between the two may be improved by using notions of vocations, vocational streams and capabilities. A vocation emerges from fields of practice where there are commonalities in the nature of practice, and the knowledge, skills and attributes required to work in that field. Vocational streams consist of linked occupations within broad fields of practice and, in turn, each occupation leads to a number of jobs. Individuals need capabilities that allow them to move vertically and horizontally within vocational streams, rather than knowledge and skills for a specific job. Capabilities are underpinned by individual, economic, social, cultural and environmental resources. They result in knowledge, skills, attributes and resources that allow individuals to live their lives, exercise choice, and to exercise autonomy, judgment and creativity at work. Capabilities are specific and not generic. They underpin the knowledge, skills and attributes that individuals need to work within specific vocations. The model of capabilities we are using is based on the work of Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen (1999) and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum (2000). This research project is midway through exploring the extent to which the capabilities approach, combined with the notion of vocations and vocational streams, can improve flows within and between education and work. It has the potential to support occupational and educational progression because it focuses on the individual and ensures that they have the broad knowledge, skills and attributes to support them in a range of occupations within a broad vocational stream.

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Supporting documents

Tertiary student transitions
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Tertiary student transitions
.docx
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Vocation project interview questions
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Vocation project interview questions
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