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Vocational or higher education?

Students studying in library

There’s a lot of choice involved when you decide to pursue tertiary study — which specialisations you’ll pursue, which study mode will best fit your lifestyle and which campus has the most to offer, just to name a few.

But what about choosing the type of education provider? For some, the choice to go to university is an obvious one, with some professions — like medicine, law and architecture — only taught by higher education providers. Other fields (such as hospitality and creative arts) are taught in both the higher education and Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector. You will find that some TAFE institutes offer degrees as well as VET courses and that some universities offer VET in addition to higher education, so there is some overlap between VET providers and higher education providers. You will also find that some private colleges offer VET, some offer higher education and some offer a mix of both.

So how do you know which of these is best for you? First, ensure that you have considered your circumstances and the type of study you’re interested in. The best way to know you have chosen the right course is to have researched your options extensively. Look into each course carefully, keeping an eye out for things like major study areas and work experience options. There are a few things to think about, including the qualification level you want, whether you want a more academic or practical focus and what type of learning style suits you best.

  • Qualification levels — Although most study fields are offered by both sectors, one significant difference is the qualification you will receive. While higher education-level study will provide you with a higher education qualification (such as a bachelor degree, graduate certificate, graduate diploma, masters or doctoral degree), VET courses — certificates, diplomas and advanced diplomas — are considered lower-level qualifications. The qualification level you complete will determine the jobs you are qualified to perform. For example, in a field such as hospitality that is available within both the VET and higher education sectors, a vocational qualification might enable you to perform practical tasks such as cooking and serving food, while a degree might enable you to take on more complex roles in hospitality management. You should consider the qualification level needed for entry into your chosen occupation and any specific study goals you have.
  • Academic or practical focus — As a general rule, you can expect VET providers to offer a more practical education and for higher education providers to offer a more academic curriculum. Whether you choose a course with an academic or practical focus will all depend on the field you are interested in and how you want to use your qualification. For example, if you are considering a design course ask yourself whether you are more interested in something practical that leads to a specific career (such as textile making) or something more academic (such as art history). Remember, though, this won’t always be the case. For example, you may find universities that emphasise practicality and employability in their course offerings.
  • Learning style — Like the teaching focus, you’ll find that the style of learning will be slightly different depending on whether you choose a higher education provider or VET provider. As a general rule, you’ll find that your learning at a higher education institution will be more independent — you may be given some guidance as to how you may approach an assessment task, but from there it’s up to you. Assessment is often focused on demonstrating your knowledge and showing that you have understood and engaged with certain concepts, with exams, essays and academic referencing vital to many disciplines. If you choose a vocational qualification, on the other hand, you may find that classes are more ‘hands-on’ rather than theoretical, and may be structured in a similar way to what you have experienced in secondary school. VET assessment is more focused on achieving certain competencies to show that you have mastered skills, and these competencies are linked to the skills that employers in the industry require of their employees.

Further information