When Erika Salmon enrolled in university to study arts and IT, she fulfilled her parents’ wishes. This, they thought, was her best chance to find employment.
But the 21-year-old from Croydon Park challenged that perception when, after two years, she dropped out to take up a TAFE course in cybersecurity. She’s never looked back.
Ms Salmon’s parents are delighted with how happy she is studying IT network security and data infrastructure engineering at TAFE NSW and her employment prospects are strong.
“With uni, it was a lot more theoretical with little practical application, whereas TAFE is a good balance between theory and practical,” she said. “It gives you the skills you need for the workplace, instead of just textbooks.
“My parents pushed me to go to uni because they thought a degree was the best way to get a job. But they can see how happy I am and how successful I’ve been at TAFE. So they have definitely changed their minds.”
A federal government review of Australia’s vocational education system has found that many students end up in a vocational career after completing an unnecessary university degree.
The review by Steven Joyce found that university has become the default post-school pathway despite a wide array of sometimes lucrative careers available through vocational education and training (VET).
Ms Salmon has a part-time job with a software company and hopes to work in cybersecurity or the internet of things when she has completed her four-year course.
“This course has led to real job opportunities,” she says.
Industry groups have raised concerns that school teachers and career counsellors rarely had personal experience of the VET sector and were pushing all capable students towards higher education. Many schools had treated VET as a “second-rate” option for low-performing students instead of recommending it as a viable alternative pathway.
“Stakeholders were concerned that students who would otherwise thrive in VET careers are being directed towards higher education options where they may not succeed,” the report says.
“They pointed to the significant drop-out rate of certain cohorts of first-year university students, and felt that some Australians end up taking up a vocational career after completing a possibly unnecessary university degree.”
The report said school students struggle to find clear and accurate information about the VET sector.
“When prospective students are unable to find the information they need, they are less likely to make good choices about post-secondary study options, including which course and which provider,” the report says.
The Business Council of Australia (BCA) says there is a lack of information available for prospective vocational students to make decisions about their future.
“This starts in schools with career counselling and the information we give young people, but is even more prevalent for adults in the labour force or looking for work, who struggle to find relevant and helpful information,” the BCA says.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry recommended a national communications strategy to promote apprenticeships and traineeships and the VET sector overall. The Minerals Council of Australia also supports the campaign and reforms addressing weaknesses in the current VET system.
Blake Stewart, 25, enrolled in a bachelor of arts at university before leaving 18 months later to study a TAFE NSW Bachelor of Early Childhood Education and Care.
He graduated from a four-year degree in 2017 and is now working as an early childhood teacher and director of a preschool.
“Originally I just wanted to get into that and transfer into primary teaching. But as I started getting into it – it was a lot more personal and I was happy doing preschool teaching,” he said. “It was much more practical doing a TAFE course.”
Mr Stewart is now studying for a Masters of Education degree majoring in early childhood leadership which will take two years to complete part-time.
Shelley Mallett, professorial fellow in social policy at the University of Melbourne and director of research and policy Centre at the Brotherhood of St Laurence, said many parents and young people had little knowledge of the VET sector and saw it as a poor second choice.
“There is a real inadequacy in careers advice and vocational planning,” she said. “The conversation needs to start early from year 7 in school and with young people and their parents and they need to have the conversation multiple times in their school career.”