VET pathway to university

Changes to career advice needed now more than ever

The recently released report into post-schooling pathways in Australia has presented a challenging picture of how career advice needs to be reconsidered in the current employment and health climate. The Report of the Review of Senior Secondary Pathways into Work, Further Education and Training identifies that many career strategies used in Australian schools rely on old paradigms that are predominantly focused on supporting students in pursuing a single career or profession, rather than encouraging a broader career outlook. These problems were identified before the disruptive impact of COVID-19 on education. The pandemic makes changes even more urgent.

Addressing gaps in career planning and advice could yet be key to global economic recovery. It is estimated over 1.6 billion students are negatively impacted by COVID-19 world-wide. Significantly, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, warns us that because of the COVID-19 pandemic the world is facing a “generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities”.

Career education (also known as career advice, guidance or learning) for young people is largely offered within high schools in many countries around the world, including Australia. Both teachers and students in Australia report that current approaches to career education are both inadequate and inequitable.

The ‘narrowing’ of options by career education strategies was also a key theme that emerged from our current research in this field. We looked at identifying best practice career education for the post-COVID era and how this could be implemented in educational settings, particularly for students from diverse backgrounds who are currently underrepresented in higher education.

Our research

Limited options

Students and teachers who participated in our research said there was an expectation from the career advice they were given that just one overriding career or pathway could, or should, be chosen. For one student ‘picking’ a unique or sole pathway was difficult and confronting.

I was told on several occasions that a particular career path was over saturated and to ‘choose a different interest’ which was a bit shocking to me, how are you supposed to just pick something else? (Female, 21-25, PhD)

Indeed, students described experiences of being funneled into particular pathways.

my school… they have a lot of advice for people that had to do trade and all that stuff but for academic purposes, it’s not that good… (Liam, 17, Bachelor of Engineering)

Lucy, a work placement provider in a NSW regional town, witnessed the foregrounding of higher education pathways rather than supporting each persons’ exploration of multiple options and opportunities.

I think these days, the careers adviser’s role has changed so much that it’s more about university entry, preparing students for university, and the ones that are not going to go to university are left out (Lucy, CEO, Work Placement Provider)

We know that career education that supports the notion of a single career is old fashioned and out of step, and so too is the idea that there is one pathway into a desired field of work. Recent research by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research in Australia has shown that a pathway from school directly to university is experienced by few and mainly those who live in metropolitan areas and often from high socioeconomic status backgrounds.

The reality of interrupted and complex pathways

In contrast to a predefined pathway or linear journey into a predetermined job, participants in this research described diverse and individualised school-to-work routes. This visual map drawn by current university student Noah (31, Bachelor of Arts) depicts his complex journey since high school which has included switching between work, study and training in the fields of Hospitality, Information Technology, and Creative Arts across three states. Noah’s journey has been influenced by depression, a sleep disorder, and indecision about what job he would like to do in the future. Noah described it as

a very storied and long journey for me, not one that I would want to go back and do again, but… better late than never.

(Post-school pathway of Noah, 31)

Noah’s journey is one example of the highly interrupted and ‘swirling’ journeys experienced by students with pathways typified by ‘stepping stones’, ‘zig zags’ and ‘lurches’.

Key message about alternative pathways

Overwhelmingly, when asked what they had wished they had known in high school, current university students told us that they had wished they had known about alternative pathways and that

ATARs aren’t like, the be all and end all’ (Jasmine, 18, Bachelor of Information Technology).

Here Yolanda highlights the pressure that the notion that there is a singular pathway, for example, achieving the requisite ATAR, has on students throughout their schooling.

I think in high school, especially at the start of high school, I wish that I had known that there were so many more pathways available to me…it would have been nice to have that kind of at the back of my mind while I was studying so that I didn’t have to stress out so much (Yolanda, 23, Bachelor of Psychology).

Arielle, University Outreach Officer, suggests that students need to be told that

it’s okay to change your mind, or to change direction and that that’s really normal… (Arielle, University Outreach Officer).

A key message for career education of school students should be that alternative entry into courses and careers do exist, and that fluid pathways are not only possible, but normal. In the current climate, career advice can no longer be focused on guiding students in one direction but should aim to provide students with choices. Indeed, for students from diverse backgrounds, whose educations can be disrupted by caring and family responsibilities, disability and illness, or financial issues, having options is critical for educational access and career development. Career advice for these students is preparing the student for multiple possible pathways rather than trying to tie them to one journey.

Career Development Learning

This more encompassing and contemporary vision of career advice, which supports equity goals, we have called Career Development Learning (CDL). In its broadest form, Career Development Learning relates to learning about self, learning about the world of work and developing the skills necessary to navigate a successful and satisfying life. Our research indicates that Best Practice Career Development Learning involves the implementation of a ‘partnership’ approach between multiple stakeholders, including schools, universities, vocational education providers, community and industry to provide students with a wide variety of authentic career-related experiences which increase knowledge, alternatives and choice.

For example, High School Principal, Michael, highlights the benefits for students when they are supported to engage in Career Development Learning activities which broaden their options, such as HSC subjects with vocational accreditation.

We’ve got, I think, six or seven kids at the moment doing nursing as a vocational subject… They’ll walk straight into work almost anywhere on the globe and it counts for their HSC (Michael, Principal, Regional High School)

The uncertainty caused by the current health emergency combined with expected record levels of unemployment and changes to educational funding means that now, more than ever, the need for high quality and targeted career advice is needed.

Current work being completed in our two-year research project include a set of Best Practice Principles for career advice for students from diverse backgrounds which, together with our Guide to Partnerships, are practical resources which can help schools and other stakeholders provide quality career development learning activities for all students.

Prof. Sarah O’Shea is the Director of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) which is hosted by Curtin University. Sarah has spent over twenty-five years working to effect change within the higher education (HE) sector through research that focuses on the access and participation of students from identified equity groups. Her institutional and nationally funded research studies advance understanding of how under-represented student cohorts enact success within university, navigate transition into this environment, manage competing identities and negotiate aspirations for self and others. This work is highly regarded for applying diverse conceptual and theoretical lenses to tertiary participation, which incorporate theories of social class, identity work, gender studies and poverty. Sarah has published extensively in the field and has been awarded over $AUD3 million in grant funding since 2009, she is also an Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow (ALTF), a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA), and a Churchill Fellow (CF).

Dr Olivia Groves currently works between the School of Education and Outreach and Equity unit at University of Wollongong in teaching and research roles. Olivia has worked in HE for ten years teaching and supporting students, including those studying via distance and with language backgrounds other than English. Also, for the past two and a half years, Olivia has been involved in research activity focused on achieving equity in HE, including improving access, participation, and outcomes for students from diverse backgrounds.

We would like to acknowledge the other research team members Kylie Austin and Jodi Lamanna for their contributions to this study, as well as the National Centre for Student Equity in HE (NCSEHE) and the Department of Education, Skills & Employment (DESE) for funding this research.

Best pathway to university for disadvantaged students: latest research findings

There are many pathways to higher education these days. I am a member of a national research team that has been examining how well pathways work for disadvantaged students.

In particular we are looking at what are called ‘enabling programs’. These are programs that prepare people for university study, who would otherwise be denied the opportunity to participate.

We looked at how enabling programs compared to the pathway to university through Vocational Education and Training (VET) for disadvantaged students.

We have not yet finished our research, but what we have discovered already has implications for universities, governments and people from disadvantaged backgrounds who aspire to a university education.

What is an ‘enabling program’?

We identified forty-eight enabling programs across twenty-seven universities, ranging in length from four weeks to as long as eighteen months, longer if taken part-time.

These programs shared the following broad characteristics:

  • They were expressly for the purpose of preparing (that is, enabling) a student to undertake a higher education degree course;
  • They were free for domestic students, however some were also provided to other types of students (for example, international students) at a charge;
  • Most had no or minimal pre-requisites for entry, in terms of academic capability or past academic performance.

Enabling programs are generally offered at minimal cost to students because the Australian Government funds them. The relatively low cost is a significant attraction for disadvantaged students.

Enabling programs are not exclusive to, but enrol disproportionately from, groups of disadvantaged students. This is in line with their fundamental aim.

Disadvantaged students are defined by the Australian government as those who fit one of more of these categories:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • People from low socio-economic status (low SES) backgrounds
  • People from regional and remote areas
  • People with disabilities
  • People from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB) and/or
  • Women enrolled in non-traditional areas of study.

How enabling programs compare

Disadvantaged students who get into university via an enabling program generally experience better first-year retention rates than those using other pathways. This is a very important finding, as completing first year is a generally good predictor of likely future success in university studies.

Disadvantaged students who came to university through the enabling programs expressed greater satisfaction with the experience than those coming through VET. However, this finding can partly be explained by the fact that, unsurprisingly, most VET students undertook the VET qualification for its own benefits and not as a pathway to university studies.

Students from low SES students, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, regional and remote students and NESB students who get into university via an enabling program experience better first-year retention rates than both the same type of equity group students who get in via a VET qualification and the same type of equity students who are in the university student population.

More details will be available as part of the project’s final report.

Enabling programs are not just for mature aged students

There is a common perception that enabling programs are for mature age people returning to study. However, our data shows the programs are popular across age ranges. In fact that there are more 17-18 year olds than 30-60 year olds enrolled in enabling programs across Australia.

It seems that enabling programs are a popular pathway for school leavers with lower ATARs. Expanding enabling places would therefore likely lead to more under-prepared school leavers choosing a pathway to university, rather than going straight into a Bachelor program. This would directly contribute to reducing university undergraduate attrition.

The potential of enabling programs

We surveyed the perceptions of 981 students who participated in enabling programs and 1230 who participated in VET prior at university. A detailed analysis of their responses is ongoing and will be available as part of the project’s final report.

One student from a low SES background sums up the sentiment on the benefits of completing an enabling program:

“It gave me the confidence I need to even try. I am 41 years old and had left high school when I was in year 10 and from then on had worked full time office based jobs. Due to being a poor student at school I had always thought that university was out of reach for me. However, completing [the enabling program] revealed I had more potential than I ever would have imagined.”

As you can see our findings could have a wide ranging impact, from government policy and funding, through how universities structure and offer enabling programs, to personal decisions made by disadvantaged students.

To register your interest in this project, and to have the final report sent to you upon its completion, please email


DevlinMarcia Devlin is Professor of Learning Enhancement and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University Australia. @MarciaDevlin

The research team includes Professor Sue Trinidad and Dr Tim Pitman from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University, Dr Andrew Harvey and Matt Brett from La Trobe University and Dr Jade McKay from Deakin University. The project was funded by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training via the Higher Education Participation Programme’s National Priorities Pool, 2014.

Andrew Harvey is presenting a paper Pathways To Higher Education: A Comparison Of Enabling Programs And Vet Pathways at the 2015 AARE conference in Fremantle, Western Australia, this week (with Tim Pitman present to help answer questions).