Crazy paving or stepping stones? Learning pathways within and between vocational education and training and higher education

By Roger Harris, Linda Rainey, Robert Sumner Research report 22 December 2006 ISBN 1 921170 01 8 print; 1 921170 07 7 web


Patterns of pathways between and within vocational education and training (VET) and higher education are examined in this study. It compares the notion of straightforward pathways with what is actually happening. The researchers interviewed 49 students in South Australia who had participated in VET and/or higher education and who had been through more than one transition between VET and higher education. The study concludes that pathways, while not necessarily seamless, and (as the title indicates) are often not straightforward, do work for the students interviewed.


About the research

This study examines patterns of pathways within and between vocational education and training (VET) and higher education. It compares the notion of straightforward pathways with what actually happens. The main data come from in-depth interviews with 49 South Australian students who had experienced both sectors. Categories of student movement are suggested.

  • The policy statements of relevant legislative bodies have aimed over time to provide broader, multiple and seamless pathways for young people.
  • Students who move within and between VET and higher education are generally not aware that career services are available, they do not use them, and they do not think they need them. These learners may be considered those who could most benefit from such services. From a system perspective this raises issues of inefficiency.
  • While policy emphasises ‘seamless pathways’, the learners in this study do not generally perceive their educational journeys as pathways, but rather as stepping stones, zigzags and lurches. Nor are the moves seen to be seamless; barriers are involved. Barriers include: finance; transport; location of institution; juggling work, family and study; inflexible class schedules; inadequate or inaccurate information, such as credit transfer or course outcomes; and personal issues, such as lack of confidence or finding academic work difficult.
  • Nevertheless, these learners see great value in everything they’ve done and are positive about their multiple learning moves. Their educational journeys demonstrate that student movement within and between sectors is certainly possible and should continue to be facilitated in policies and program initiatives.

Executive summary

Over the past decade, promotion of educational pathways and seamless learning by governments and institutions may be perceived as both positive and problematic. ‘Seamless’ transition can provide considerable choice for young people and yet, at the same time, can readily lead to uncertainty and indecision. A number of studies have drawn attention to the phenomenon of indirect transfer, where movement of tertiary students is not linear, but instead involves several moves within and between institutions and sectors.

American studies refer to the ‘swirling’ of tertiary students and to ‘the community college shuffle’. In Australia, there has been a suggestion that this kind of movement is also occurring, although its extent remains unknown. The only indication comes from an earlier study by the present authors of all commencing students in South Australian tertiary institutions. This study investigated the issue of intersectoral and intrasectoral movement and found that it was significant and growing within the tertiary sector.

The current study is a qualitative exploration of the personal histories of 49 of these students. It set out to examine the nature of these pathways and whether they display any patterns that might help us to understand the experiences of moving within and between various pathways.

The findings help to sharpen understanding of learning pathways and movements, and may assist policy-makers and institutional planners to establish robust relationships between the sectors and to implement policies and services to help learners navigate through education systems.

The study focuses on those policies and initiatives implemented in recent years designed to facilitate clear and easy pathways between vocational education and training (VET) and higher education. It also addresses barriers preventing learners from accessing these pathways and how learners perceive and make use of these pathways.

The study used three research methods. First, a literature review was undertaken to identify policies on pathways and career services and initiatives for facilitating pathways. Second, analyses were undertaken of sets of data obtained from current databases held by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) and the Department of Education, Science and Training. The data related to students who had experienced learning in both the VET and higher education sectors. The prime, and third method involved in-depth interviews with 49 students in South Australia who had experienced learning in both sectors.

Key findings


Policies on pathways and career services

Over recent years there have been common themes in the policy documents of the major legislative bodies concerned with young people’s transitions from school to further education and work. These have stressed the need for seamless movement between school, VET and higher education, and for a wider range of pathways. The requirement for career services to support young people in their choices has also been a common and agreed theme. However, progress in improving pathways for young people has not been accompanied by corresponding progress in the provision of career support to facilitate these pathways.

Selected initiatives facilitating learning pathways

A range of initiatives has been undertaken to enable learning pathways within and between the education sectors. These have included arrangements for articulation, credit transfer and recognition of prior learning; the appointment of specialist staff, such as skills advisors and pathways officers; and the provision of enabling or bridging courses for those lacking knowledge and skills for a course. Inter-institutional collaborative arrangements, such as joint courses, learning opportunities on shared campuses or in dual-sector institutions, have also been established. School-based initiatives such as developing vocational streams have been implemented widely. While there have been difficulties associated with a number of efforts to enhance pathways, there has been solid progress and many notable successes over recent years.

Learning moves

The total number of moves undertaken by the 49 participants was 165—with 80 into higher education and 85 into VET. The first transition was from school and, since participants had a history of study in both tertiary sectors, all participants had a minimum of two moves. The number of moves per respondent ranged from two to seven. Three-quarters of the students made three or more moves. Given that 49 of these moves were from school, the remaining 116 were moves between and within the two tertiary sectors: 64 intersectoral moves and 52 intrasectoral moves.

Field of education

Approximately 40% of all sectoral moves were to the same field of education. For those who made only one intersectoral move, most were into a different field of education. When moving between sectors, students were more likely to enter a different field of education than to stay in the same field, although this tendency was more marked in those moving from higher education to VET. There was very little movement from higher education into the same field of education in VET. On the other hand, the intrasectoral moves indicate that there is more movement within VET, both for the same and for different fields of education, than there is within the higher education sector.

Employment while studying

Nearly 70% of students in both sectors worked while studying. The picture overall is of a very hard-working group of students who demonstrate considerable flexibility in both their work and study patterns. Apart from higher education students having a higher incidence of largely only one, part-time job and VET students having more full-time and multiple jobs, the patterns do not differ significantly.

Use of career services when moving within and between sectors

There was generally a lack of awareness of career services. Usually only assistance which was readily available and accessible was sought. Information sources (particularly websites) were the most commonly used resource, but these were generally not fully utilised, and only information relevant to the next move was normally accessed. Choice was mainly driven by student interest in a particular field, which was often the ‘glue’ that held the pathways together.

Making the moves

Reasons for making moves were frequently straightforward and were often made for vocational reasons, although in some cases they were the result of a student’s interest in a particular area. Additional influences included being required to make the study move by an employer, location and reputation of the institution, course reputation, institutional flexibility, encouragement from family or friends, advice from counsellors, or affordability of the course. Barriers were often encountered and included: finance issues, such as having to work to afford to study; transport; location of institution; issues associated with juggling work, family and study; inflexible class schedules; inadequate or inaccurate information, for example, on credit transfer or course outcomes; and personal issues, for example, a lack of confidence or finding the academic work difficult.

Generally, participants reported that their expectations had been met by the moves.

Learning pathways

The term, ‘learning pathway’, was interpreted as a journey of learning, but in a variety of ways and it was rarely perceived as linear. The picture that was presented comprised fragmented or discontinuous stages and a series of personal choices—a journey where the individual had autonomy to twist and turn. In some instances, the notion of a learning pathway was recognised as implying a commitment to lifelong learning. Moreover, many did not feel that this term was the most apt description for their own learning history. Instead, they used such terms as ‘stepping stones’, ‘zigzags’ and ‘crooked paths’. Reasons for this irregularity of path included lack of guidance, lack of fit between courses attempted, inexperience and lack of course prerequisites.

While not necessarily seamless, the available sectoral moves and pathways appear to be both functional and effective and are used by young people. The process may be enhanced by targeted, accessible and accurate information and by provision of career advice. Notwithstanding systemic factors, the character and make-up largely dictates whether these opportunities are taken up.

This study has revealed a diversity of pathways which are neither linear nor traditional. Analysis of these pathways indicates some common patterns of sectoral movement, although further work is required to develop the categorisation suggested below so that it becomes part of a lifelong learning framework.

  • Interest chasers: when describing this pattern of movement, the terms used might be ‘multi-directional’, ‘searching’, or ‘yo-yo’—bouncing between different fields of interest.
  • Career developers: some participants showed consistent interest, even though they may have made several sectoral moves. Sometimes this looked like a domino pattern, where an element of one learning experience led to a sectoral move to further develop this as a career. This pattern was more linear, being less of a ‘jump’ than a ‘flow’ into another course of study.
  • Career mergers: having explored interests in other areas, some participants then drew different experiences together to move into a more focused course of study. This was different from the ‘career developer’ pattern, in that it was usually non-linear.
  • Forced learners: sometimes participants undertook what appeared to be a completely different course of study for professional development reasons. Sometimes this change was due to some practical factor, which obliged them to undertake a particular course, such as affordability, location or entry requirements. This might appear like a detour or side step.
  • Two-trackers: some more experienced respondents attempted to develop an alternative career as insurance for a time when their current career was no longer possible. This pattern also occurred when students were trying to improve their chances of earning an income while studying.


In interpreting the findings, it needs to be acknowledged that there are limitations in the use of national data, because individual movements cannot be tracked. Care also needs to be taken in generalising from the types of student movement, as the sample interviewed was relatively small, and from only one state.


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