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Participation in Education: Beyond compulsory schooling
While schooling in Australia is compulsory between 6 and 15 years of age (16 years of age in Tasmania), considerable community and government interest is focused on the extension of educational opportunities beyond compulsory school age, and the ongoing acquisition of skills throughout people’s lives.1 Most of the students who are beyond compulsory school age are relatively young people developing skills to establish themselves in the workplace. However, older students make up a sizeable proportion (34% of students in the 15-64 years age group in 1999 were aged over 24 years). This suggests that to gain an edge, or even to keep pace, in the labour market, older people see a need to upgrade their qualifications or skills.
In 1999, there were almost 2.3 million people aged 15-64 attending an educational institution, comprising 679,400 in schools, 762,400 in Vocational Education and Training (VET) institutions, predominantly TAFE colleges (see box for definition), and a further 815,400 in higher education institutions. This represented an increase of 28% (or nearly half a million) over the 1.8 million a decade earlier, and more than at any previous time.
Participation increase by age group
There are two main factors, which cannot be clearly separated from each other from the available data, driving this rise: greater participation by certain groups of people and increasing numbers of overseas students. For example, the proportion of overseas students in higher education courses increased from 5% in 1989 to 12% in 1999 (see Australian Social Trends 2000, Education: National summary table).
Between 1989 and 1999, the education participation rate of 15-64 year olds (including overseas students) increased from 16% to 18%. The increase occurred in all age groups but was most rapid, and highest throughout the period, for younger students.
By 1999, 78% of 15-19 year olds were attending an educational institution, compared to 66% in 1989. This partly reflects the increased tendency of young people to stay at school beyond the compulsory age of attendance: the apparent retention of school students to Year 12 increased from 60% in 1989 to 72% in 1999. It also reflects a greater tendency to progress to tertiary study.
Increased participation over the decade by the 20-24 years age group (up from 22% in 1989 to 34% in 1999) further illustrates this progression, but is also a result of an upward shift in the level of qualification sought by tertiary students. Remaining as a student for longer, by undertaking courses of longer duration or enrolling in more advanced courses, will increase rates for people in their mid to late twenties as well as overall education participation rates.
There was a small increase in the educational participation of older people (aged 25 years and over) over the decade, too, but by a smaller amount (3 percentage points or less for every ten-year age group, and declining with age). (For more information about older people in education, see Australian Social Trends 2000, Mature age people in education and training).
Expansion of participation in tertiary education
While the number of students in post-compulsory schooling (mainly those in the 15-19 years age group) grew by less than 8% over the decade ending 1999, the number of tertiary students increased by 40%. Within the tertiary education sector, the available statistics (which should be used with caution because boundaries between the sectors have been becoming less defined), show that the number of higher education students has increased at a much higher rate than the number of VET students (increases of 66% and 20%, respectively). The large expansion of the higher education sector began in the late 1980s with the amalgamation of universities with the then colleges of advanced education, and associated growth in the sector.2
Accompanying this increase in tertiary students (amounting to nearly 447,000 students), the profile of students also changed. The student population in 1999 was older and more qualified than a decade earlier, and had a higher proportion of women.
An ageing tertiary student population
In both VET and higher education institutions, the numbers of those aged 35 years or more increased more quickly than total student numbers, even though the participation rates in older age groups had increased relatively slowly. The number aged 35 years and over increased by 36% among VET students and by 90% among higher education students, (compared with overall increases of 20% and 66%, respectively). The rate of increase was most dramatic for those aged 45-54 years.
Even within the younger age groups the profile had changed. Increases were higher for those aged 20-24 years than for those aged 15-19 years in higher education institutions. At the same time, there appeared to be a rise in those aged 20-34 years in VET institutions, and a small drop in numbers for those aged 15-19. The apparent drop in numbers for the 15-19 years age group may have occurred because of the introduction of vocational courses offered in schools.3
Participation by men and women
In 1989, levels of participation in post- compulsory education for men and women were much the same (around 16%). At that time, just under half (49%) of all students in post-compulsory education were women. However, the growth in participation over the decade was a little faster for women, so that by 1999, 19% of women aged 15-64 years were participating in post-compulsory education, compared with 18% of men. As a result, women made up just over half (52%) of all students in 1999.
The increase in the proportion of women occurred in both the VET and higher education sectors, and was greatest among those aged in their 20s and 30s. In 1989, women made up 49% of higher education students aged 20-24 and 47% of those aged 25-44. By 1999, these proportions had increased to 52% and 55%, respectively. However, while women had made up the large majority of those aged 45-64 in higher education in 1989 (65%), their predominance had decreased by 1999 (to 59%).
Similar changes have been occurring in the VET sector. Historically, many young men aged under 25 years have opted for an apprenticeship rather than continue their schooling after the age of 15. Consequently, their numbers have dominated in VET courses (in 1989, women made up 37% of VET students aged 15-19 and 38% of those aged 20-24). However, with the introduction of traineeships in 1985 (see Australian Social Trends 2000, Developments in contracted training: apprentices and trainees), an option which is more attractive to women, this gap has been narrowing. In 1999, women made up 38% of VET students aged 15-19 and 47% of those aged 20-24.
Increasingly qualified tertiary students
The great majority of 15-19 year old students would not have had the opportunity to gain a post-school qualification in the short time since leaving school. Of those who did (less than 5% in both 1989 and 1999), none had held a degree or higher in either year. The proportion of students aged 20 and over who already held a qualification was generally much higher, and increased with age.
Over the decade to 1999, the proportion of students aged between 20 and 64, both in VET and in higher education institutions, who already held a recognised post-school qualification has remained fairly steady (at around 52%). However, this has masked an increase in those who held a bachelor degree or higher (from 18% to 28%) and a decrease in those who held other types of post-school qualifications (from 34% to 25%).
The increases in students with a degree were greatest for older tertiary students (the proportion of students aged 25-64 holding a bachelor degree or higher rose from 23% to 36% over the period), particularly those in a higher education institution. Even so, the proportion of VET students who already held a bachelor degree or higher also rose considerably (from 10% to 18%). Again, this trend was very strong among older students.
For older people with degrees, enrolling in further study, either at a VET or higher education institution, might reflect a change of direction in their careers to keep pace with the needs of a changing workplace.
For younger students, the increased tendency for those with a degree to then seek a VET qualification (sometimes called ‘reverse articulation’) could be born of the perception that gaining a more practical qualification can enhance a ’theoretical’ one and make them more competitive in the labour market. Unemployment rates for those with a bachelor degree or higher are generally lower, and have risen less sharply between 1989 and 1999, than those with lower levels of qualifications (see Australian Social Trends 2000, Education: National summary table). However, there is evidence to show that labour market outcomes for new bachelor degree graduates have become less favourable over the decade. For those who graduated with a bachelor degree in 1988, and who were available for full-time employment, 91% had obtained a full-time job by April the following year.4 Only 81% of 1998 graduates had experienced the same outcome by April 1999.5 The starting salaries for 1998 graduates (82% of average weekly earnings) were also relatively lower than for 1988 graduates (90%).5
Level of course
Not only was there an increase in the proportion of students who already held a degree, but there were also proportionally more students undertaking a course at the bachelor degree level or higher in 1999 than there were in 1989. Of all tertiary students in 1999, just under half (49%) were undertaking a bachelor degree or higher level course compared to about one third (34%) of students in 1989. Taken together, these two trends suggest that more students are undertaking second degree, double degree, or higher degree courses.
The large majority of higher education students enrol in bachelor degree or higher level courses (88% in 1999). The proportions of students enrolled at these levels in TAFEs and other tertiary providers are much lower (3% and 16%, respectively in 1999). However, there was an increase over the decade in the proportions who were enrolled at this level in all three types of tertiary institutions; the increase being much smaller in TAFEs (from 2% to 3%) than in higher education institutions (from 74% to 88%) or other tertiary providers (from 6% to 16%). These changes illustrate that the boundaries between the schools, higher education and VET sectors have become blurred over recent years. For example, some VET courses are delivered in schools and vice versa; and certain higher education courses are delivered, at least partly, in VET institutions.3
Shift to full-time study
While the majority of tertiary students, both in 1989 and in 1999, were in part-time study, there has been an increasing preference for full-time study. Full-time enrolments increased from 37% of all enrolments to 45%.
In the VET sector, full-time enrolments increased from 18% to 26% over the period. The proportion of students in higher education institutions attending full-time, historically greater than in the VET sector, also increased, from 61% to 63%.
Full-time study was more popular among both men and women in 1999 than in 1989, whether they were studying in a VET or a higher education institution. The shift to full-time tertiary study was apparent across each age group. In 1989, 57% of students aged 15-19, 54% of those aged 20-24, and 15% of those aged 25-64 undertook full-time study, rising to 72%, 62% and 23%, respectively, in 1999.
Combining work and study
There are some benefits to students from combining work and study. Having a job can provide a source of income and allow some independence. It can also enhance employment opportunities upon completion of their studies. In 1999, over half (57%) of all students held a job. This represented only a small increase from the 54% in 1989 who held a job. However, there was a strong shift from full-time to part-time employment among students over the decade.
The trend to taking on part-time employment in addition to their studies starts with school students, the proportion of whom with a part-time job increased from 25% to 31% between 1989 and 1999.
For those in tertiary institutions, there was only minimal change in the proportion who also held a job. However, this masked strong increases in the proportion of tertiary students, especially those attending full-time, who were in part-time employment, which increased from 34% to 42%.
Older students, those aged 25-64, were much more likely than younger students to be working full-time. Moreover, the shift away from full-time to part-time employment was most evident for students in the younger age groups.
These shifts may be partly related to the shift to full-time enrolment (leaving fewer hours for employment) as well as a greater availability of part-time work.
1 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1992, Education and Training in Australia, cat. no. 4224.0, ABS, Canberra.
2 Department of Employment, Education and Training, Higher Education Division 1993, National Report on Australia’s Higher Education Sector, AGPS, Canberra.
3 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1999, Education and Training in Australia 1998, cat. no. 4224.0, ABS, Canberra
4 Graduate Careers Council of Australia 1989, 1988 Australian Graduates in 1989, A national survey of their destinations as at 30 April,
GCCA Ltd., Parkville.
5 Graduate Careers Council of Australia, 1999 Graduates: Work, Study, Salaries and Course Satisfaction - Main Points, in GradStats
Number 4 <URL: http://gradlink.edu.au>, December 1999 (Accessed April 2000).