Hurdling the barriers: enabling student pathways from VET to higher education in building and construction management

By Anthony Mills, Patricia McLaughlin, Jane Carnegie Research report 22 July 2013 ISBN 978 1 922056 60 3


The authors investigate the 'enablers' that support building and construction students moving from diplomas into construction management and related bachelor degrees. The research considers the broader rationale for strengthening educational pathways, particularly from the perspectives of the students who have already made the transition from vocational education and training (VET) to higher education. Consistent with other research, this study confirms that committed VET teachers and staff, opportunities for students to build confidence, and collaboration between VET and higher education providers enables the navigation of a successful pathway.


About the research

This project investigates student transfer from vocational education and training (VET) to higher education, that is, from diploma to degree, in the building and construction industry. Thirty-six VET diploma students currently studying a degree in construction management and related qualifications were interviewed across eight universities to identify what helped them to make the transition. While previous research on pathways has considered the question of enablers, limited research has been undertaken from the perspective of students.

Key messages

Students who have used a pathway from a building diploma to a construction degree identified various enablers. The most common were:

  • people who provided guidance, support and knowledge of pathways (particularly VET teachers)
  • positive VET learning experiences, which built confidence and motivation for ongoing learning and the development of self-directed learning skills
  • the recognition given for prior VET studies through admission and credit by the receiving universities.

While the research identified various enablers, the pathway from a building diploma to a construction degree is seriously constrained by the low numbers of students in diploma-level building studies. Improving recognition of prior learning for industry employees would help to expand the potential pool of students who could take this path.

Tom Karmel

Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

The purpose and focus of this study is to investigate the ‘enablers’ that assist and support students in moving from building diplomas in vocational education and training (VET) into construction management and related bachelor degrees in higher education. These enablers are identified from the perspective of students who have moved in a linear pathway from vocational education and training to higher education.

A number of previous studies have inquired into pathway enablers but, as noted by Wheelahan (2009c), only limited research has been conducted from a student perspective. This project aims to contribute to our knowledge from this perspective within this subfield of education. Improving our understanding of the enablers may also assist in the development of enhanced pathway initiatives.

The study is broadened by an examination of the current industry and education context. This context provides a rationale for strengthening pathways and clarifies some of the key issues. The project was conducted through a qualitative case study approach, supported by the identification and review of relevant published materials.

The qualitative research component encompassed the selection of higher education providers with known cohorts of pathways students in building and construction management and seeking their assistance to gain student access. The researchers were mindful of the need for geographic diversity and the inclusion of higher education providers with relatively high levels of students in this field.

A total of 36 students were interviewed from eight higher education providers across five states. The information gathered from the interviews was recorded and then interpreted using the Design and Evaluation Matrix for Outreach (DEMO) developed by Gale et al. (2010). Although this tool was developed for another purpose — outreach — its structure provided a relevant and appropriate platform for this study. As the study is primarily interpretative and the number of interviewees relatively small, the findings should not be generalised. However, it can be said that the identified ‘enablers’ represent markers for further and broader research, while the issues and options raised in the report for improving tertiary education pathways deserve further exploration.

To set the scene for investigating pathway enablers, a picture of the industry and education context is provided using published datasets and industry reports. The value of the industry both in economic and employment terms is highlighted, along with the occupational and qualifications profile of the industry. These data provide more than background information; they influence the research findings and provide a key rationale for improving pathways and identifying constraints.

A number of recent reports highlight the current skills needs and skills shortages in the industry (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations 2011a; Australian Workforce Productivity Agency 2012a; Construction and Property Services Industry Skills Council 2011). In all of these reports construction management stands out as a critical occupation. Recent growth has led to a designated skills shortage for this occupation, which is projected to continue. Construction management has become the fourth most important occupation by employment numbers in recent years, growing by 55% in the five years 2005—10 (Australian Workforce Productivity Agency 2012a), with further growth in the order of 3% per annum projected until 2025 (Australian Workforce Productivity Agency 2012a).

This occupation is also designated as ‘specialised’ by the Australian Workforce Productivity Agency (2012b), meaning it is of ‘high value and contributes significantly to medium and long term skills developed through formal and extended education and training over a long lead time’. In other words it is a degree-qualified occupation. The Australian Workforce Productivity Agency (2012a) projects that the number of bachelor degree holders will need to increase by at least 25% to meet industry needs to 2025.

Meeting this projected increase in bachelor holders is problematic, given the low levels of higher education provision in this subfield of education. Based on higher education data for 2011, students in architecture and building comprised only 2.1% of all higher education students, measured by student load. Numbers in higher education remained static in the three years 2009—11 (Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education 2009, 2010, 2011). Stakeholders indicated specific constraints to extending provision within universities, including suitable staff and facilities.

One mechanism for meeting industry skills needs is improved pathways into higher education for VET qualification holders. This mechanism is important because it provides opportunities for upskilling by recent VET graduates and for experienced employees, and builds on skills and knowledge already attained. It also provides higher education providers with a pipeline into second and third years. However, this mechanism is constrained by the low levels of higher education provision and the high demand for student places.

Across all fields of education, diploma graduates are more likely to continue into higher education than graduates of lower-level qualifications. This is also true for this industry, with 16.5% of 2010 graduates moving to a bachelor degree in 2011, compared with 15.2 % of graduates in all fields (NCVER 2011a). However 16.5% of graduates represent just 464 persons out of an estimated graduate pool in this field of 2810. By comparison, the total graduate diploma pool in vocational education and training in 2010 was estimated at 81 800 (NCVER 2011a). On a numerical basis, pathway students from diploma to degree in this field are miniscule.

Boosting these graduate numbers requires:

  • identifying ways to increase higher education enrolments and to address higher education constraints in provision
  • improving pathways from certificate III/IV qualifications into diplomas and potentially into degrees. At these qualification levels both the percentage and numbers of students continuing with studies is significantly less than the average of all fields
  • increasing the number of enrolments in diplomas (also low as a proportion of diploma enrolments)
  • increasing the number of graduates in diplomas.

In this context, the higher education students in building and construction management who had been successful in navigating a pathway from vocational education and training were interviewed. In essence, the interviewees formed two groups: those students for whom the VET diploma was always a pathway to the degree and those for whom the diploma became a pathway to the degree. In identifying the enablers, slightly discernible differences in emphasis were evident between these two groups.

The student responses were mapped and categorised to each of the ten characteristics and four strategies making up the Design and Evaluation Matrix for Outreach (Gale et al. 2010) and the findings detailed in the report. In summary, the key enablers identified (and expressed in the terminology of the matrix) are:

  • ‘people-rich resources’, the most significant being the teachers and other staff in vocational education and training who gave guidance and advice to these students in areas such as future study, upskilling options and career opportunities for higher-level qualifications, and information on universities, credit and other relevant issues. This enabler was evident across all student responses
  • ‘recognition of difference’, expressed through recognition for prior VET studies given by the destination universities in the form of credit and guaranteed entry (where provided) or ease of admission, and the support given to transition students as individual learners. This enabler was more important to those students who had intended vocational education and training as a pathway
  • the ‘engagement of learners’, represented primarily through ‘positive learning experiences in vocational education and training’, which gave these students the skills and confidence to go on to higher education. This enabler was more relevant to students who decided to continue studying as a consequence of their VET studies but was evident in both groups
  • ‘collaboration and communication’ between the VET and higher education providers, expressed through familiarity activities such as orientations, strong communication between staff and ‘link’ personnel in both institutions
  • the ‘building of confidence’ in learners through VET studies and experiences, which engendered a high motivation to study and succeed at university and a clear focus on the value of the degree and the career of construction management. This enabler was evidenced in the responses of students from both groups.

Stakeholder forums conducted as part of this study provided the opportunity to share and discuss the research findings and to consider ideas and options to strengthen pathways in this field. The value and relevance of contextualising the research to industry needs was confirmed by stakeholders, with industry representatives strongly supporting greater involvement in the development of pathways.

Options and ideas to emerge from the forums included:

  • the need to build better pathways within vocational education and training from certificate III/IV into diplomas
  • greater flexibility in qualifications and combinations of qualifications between vocational education and training and higher education
  • improved recognition of prior learning in higher education for existing workers with skills and experience
  • greater use of work-based and integrated learning to support industry involvement and, perhaps, to assist in enabling further growth in higher education provision.

This research has contributed to a wider understanding of the importance of VET to higher education pathways to workforce needs in the building and construction industry. It has highlighted the factors/ enablers which assist students to use these pathways and identified further ways by which to build and improve pathways.


2633 .pdf 627.5 KB Download
2633 .docx 582.0 KB Download