Men with low marks ‘better off at college’, but not women

Gender determines whether university study is in directionless students’ interests

August 11, 2019
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Young men who are not academically inclined should pursue vocational qualifications rather than degrees if they lack firm career plans, an Australian report suggests – but women in similar circumstances are better off at university.

The Grattan Institute report explores concerns that Australia’s uncapped university funding system has pushed young people into higher education when vocational study would have suited them better.

Grattan higher education expert Andrew Norton said male vocational graduates often obtained well-paid jobs in construction and engineering. Most vocationally trained women, on the other hand, ended up in low-paid positions and would fare better in occupations requiring degrees.

Mr Norton noted that income was not students’ only motivation. “If someone is genuinely passionate about science or humanities, they should do that even though there are some employment risks associated with it,” he said.

“But there’s huge pressure on kids to go to university, even when they don’t have a clear idea where they want to end up. The careers advice students receive is extremely patchy so they may not hear about vocational alternatives.”

Debates over the relative merits of higher and vocational education were sparked by the now abandoned demand-driven funding system, which allowed universities to recruit thousands of students with poor high school marks.

The number of school-leavers entering university with Australian Tertiary Admission Rank scores (ATARs) below 70 – or no ATARs at all – increased by three-quarters over the decade from 2007, while the ranks of entrants with 70-plus ATARs rose by just one-fifth.

Mr Norton said that, on average, people with degrees earned more than those with vocational qualifications. “But that’s not useful advice if you’re not the average student,” he said.

He said most university graduates had high ATARs and earning statistics mirrored their salaries, “which is not necessarily reflective of what a low-ATAR person can reasonably expect to achieve”.

His study found that for men with ATARs of 65, those with diplomas could anticipate higher lifetime earnings than those with degrees. Diplomas would reap higher average incomes than degrees in fields apart from information technology, commerce and law.

Low-ATAR men with science degrees would have earned about 9 per cent more if they had engineering diplomas, and 13 per cent more with commerce diplomas.

But for low-ATAR women, vocational qualifications in most fields would yield lower lifetime earnings than degrees. Mr Norton said that very few women did vocational courses in high-paying areas like engineering or construction, “and the ones that do often don’t get very good outcomes because they hit workplaces that are not female-friendly”.

He said women with low ATARs often took degrees in nursing or teaching. “Typically they do quite well, with high rates of professional employment and decent salaries. [They] are probably making decisions in their own best interests, and we wouldn’t recommend they go to vocational education instead,” he said.

Statistics show that about 56 per cent of Australian university students are female, suggesting that women are already following this advice. “You could argue that the system is giving reasonably sensible results,” Mr Norton said.

He acknowledged “risks” for low-ATAR students pursuing certain professions. Some Australian states mandate high ATARs for entry into teaching courses, for example. But regulators had “limited levers” to enforce these policies, because people with low ATARs could access such courses via “back door” routes such as transferring from other courses.

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