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Grattan Institute post-secondary report – troubling times ahead

The latest Grattan Institute report found that men who scored lower ATARs at school but gained vocational qualifications in engineering, construction and commerce could have higher average earnings than if they had instead pursued a degree qualification.

Uni at all cost?
The dearth in those taking up vocational training comes in spite of a national skills shortages in many trades that is predicted to soon become critical. Data released estimated that Australia will need up to a million workers with vocational qualifications by 2023, and this imminent decline is the focus of National Skills Week later this month.

Brian Wexham, the event’s founder, said change needed to come from parents.

“We’re faced with this challenge that many, many parents still believe that the right route for their child is to go to university and they will get a more fulfilling and better career, and for some that is true, but of course it’s not true for everyone,” he said.

“A lot of students are practical learners, they’re not academically inclined.

“And frankly I think universities have got a lot to answer for, because they encourage people to go there even if it might not be suitable for them.

“It’s been widely reported that some universities have accepted ATARs of 50, and frankly all they’re doing is enrolling somebody who’s probably destined to fail, and all they end up doing is having a HECS bill, but if you’re an apprentice you get paid to learn.”

Universities have defended their graduates’ employment outcomes in the light of the Grattan report.

Universities Australia chief Catriona Jackson said a low ATAR can be a sign of disruption during a student’s Year 12 studies.

“It doesn’t predict the destiny of every student, and the vast majority of students who enter university go on to successfully complete their studies,” she said.

On graduate jobs and salaries, she said: “University graduates earn up to $1 million more over their lifetimes on average and are 2.5 times less likely to be unemployed than those without a higher qualification.

“Nine in 10 university graduates are in full-time work three years after graduation, and four out of five undergraduates work in professional or managerial roles.

“And the median salary of university graduates three years on from finishing their studies is $70,000.”

The Grattan report also highlights gender disparity at play, with men receiving a 10 per cent higher salary than women. The differences in gender pay at the Certificate III/V and Diploma levels were negligible, with roughly a one percentage point in favour of males.

The disparity between the number of male and female construction workers appears to be growing in several sectors. In 2016, there were 12,000 women with vocational engineering qualifications, compared to 300,000 men, and men accounted for over 200,000 of the jobs.

Typically, professions such as education, nursing and human welfare continue to be the purview of “women’s work”, an issue that must be addressed sooner rather than later if Australia is to maintain its reputation as a knowledge-driven, equitable society.

Another key finding in the report is the worse you perform at university the lower your earning potential will be in the future.

The report pointed out that “low-ATAR commerce graduates failed 12 per cent of their subjects”, and it was subjects like IT, engineering and science that had the worst dropout rates. Conversely, liberal arts students are our most likely to succeed at university.

The number of students enrolling in university has swelled by more than one-third over the past decade, with more students with lower ATARs and those from diverse backgrounds now attending. The increase has had a direct impact on trades-based courses, down 43 per cent in five years.

COAG talks last week addressed the concern of the critical skills shortages and led to the commissioning of a review of post-secondary school pathways.

Andrew Norton, Grattan’s higher education program director, said some university graduates were struggling to get jobs, especially if they studied generalist degrees in humanities and science – particularly the case with students with low ATARs.

“This report is looking at the concern that some low ATAR students, who have been increasing in numbers at university, would have been better off in vocational education,” Mr Norton said.

“The report finds that is true in some cases, particularly for young men.

“We find that there is a high risk that they won’t get the financial benefits of higher education that higher ATAR students would get, and that they would do well in a range of vocational occupations such as engineering and trades related [to] construction and some commerce type degrees.”

However, Norton said the picture was different for women.

“By contrast, lower ATAR women who go into nursing and teaching degrees have pretty good employment outcomes, very high rates of professional employment, and we think they’ll end up earning a lot more than the women who go into vocational education,” he said.

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