Is vocational education of lower status than higher education?

Earlier this month, Scott Morrison said that he wanted to raise the status of TAFE, declaring that “TAFE is as good as uni”.

On common status indicators, TAFE seems to come second to university education. There is status associated with academic ability, and TAFE requires lower school results for admission than university. The chart below shows the ATARs of students admitted to the two systems since the mid-1990s according to LSAY. Although almost all high-ATAR students go to university, the two sectors have long recruited in overlapping ATAR ranges. But the regular media stories about low-ATAR university admissions might have narrowed the historical status gap. ATAR range

Higher education also benefits from being the gateway to high- prestige and highly-paid occupations. But as graduates find it more difficult to find high-prestige or well-paid jobs, and  increasingly fall behind people with some vocational qualifications on employment and earnings, perhaps higher education’s status is slipping.

And there is some survey evidence that the status gap between the systems is not necessarily very large.

A survey commissioned for the Joyce review asked its 17-22 year old respondents about the prestige associated with various qualifications. On a 1-7 scale, there was a one point difference between an apprenticeship and a bachelor degree (below).  The survey identified small differences between vocational qualifications, reflecting the formal hierarchy of the Australian Qualifications Framework.

qual prestige

The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes asks people about their own status. Their answers are presumably influenced by their education, occupation, income and other factors. As the chart below shows, using 2015 data, the differences by qualification held have the expected pattern but are not large. There is a tendency for people to rate themselves as 6 or 7 on the 10 point scale; 46 per cent of the whole sample did so in 2015.

status social by qual

These qualification level analyses suggest that the inherent status differences between vocational and higher education are modest, but perhaps miss the status differences within each system.

A recent student survey reported in the AFR found that 48 per cent of higher education students and 30 per cent of TAFE students gave their perception that their institution was well-ranked as a top five reason for choosing it. Twenty per cent of uni students and 10 per cent of TAFE students gave ‘prestigious brand’ as a reason. But the most-nominated reasons were all practical ones to do with interest in the course, teaching, location and employment. This is similar to some university-related research done a decade ago.

Some schools and parents should be more relaxed about young people choosing vocational education (if you haven’t already seen it, this New Zealand advertisement about parental attitudes to trades education is very good). But pointing out vocational education’s employment and earnings potential is likely to achieve more than worrying about small status differences.


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