Universities 'over-rated'

August 29, 1997

Australia's students rate technical and further education (TAFE) colleges higher than universities, according to new research, writes Geoff Maslen.

A study by University of Melbourne researchers found thatstudents who had taken courses at both TAFE colleges and universities were far more enthusiastic about the value of TAFE programmes.

Almost half the students surveyed thought universities were over-rated, while three out of four believed that colleges should be more highly regarded. Students who had direct experience with technical and further education were also much more positive than their university counterparts about how well-organised and well-taught their courses were.

Compared with the higher education sector, Australia's college system is gigantic. It enrols more than 1.5 million students each year - many taking short courses to upgrade work-related skills - in some 250 colleges.But it has long been regarded among school students as the second-best option. The University of Melbourne findings reveal an extraordinary change in attitudes after students actually experience life at college.

Before taking tertiary study, most students had said they were not particularly interested in going to a college. Many had negative opinions about the courses offered but then they discovered the reality was markedly different from what they had expected.

The study began in 1991 and was intended to investigate the experiences of students who left school in Victoria that year. The sample comprised some 3,000 school-leavers who went on to further study immediately and another 1,000 who decided not to continue in 1992 but among whom eight out of ten later resumed study of some kind.

More than 70 per cent of the 1991 school-leavers hoped to go to university although only 64 per cent were admitted. A mere 11 per cent had nominated a college course as their first preference but then 24 per cent actually enrolled. Looking back, only 7 per cent of this latter group said they were in any way disappointed.

The research team is headed by associate professor Peter Dwyer from Melbourne's Youth Research Centre. Professor Dwyer said it was hoped to continue monitoring the progress of the young people up to 2000.

"The students who were attending university believed it set higher standards, and that a degree was likely to lead to better paid jobs," Professor Dwyer said. "Yet those who had been both to a college and a university were critical of the university and referred to its 'remoteness from the real world'."

Of the students surveyed, 54 per cent had been to university, per cent had undertaken courses at college and 18 per cent had experience of both sectors. The latter were "overwhelmingly positive'' about both the value and usefulness of the technical and further education pathway.

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