Vocational versus academic

Monday, March 5, 2018

One of my bugbears is the artificial debate around academic and vocational that is often trotted out, particularly when choices at 18 are discussed, and again when employability of graduates from ‘mickey-mouse’ degrees rears its head.

The latest work by HEFCE further helps debunk the myth that the choice of going to University is purely an academic choice. ‘Vocational degrees and employment outcomes’ (2018/01) investigates the relationship between subject and employment outcomes in terms of how vocational the subject is. Highly vocational courses teach specific skills and knowledge in preparation for a specific occupation – and the report uses employment in the three most common highly skilled occupations associated with a given subject as a measure of how vocational it is.

A more vocational subject leads to graduate employment in a small number of highly skilled roles, rather than their graduates being employed across a wide range of roles. The example given is a degree in medicine is highly likely to lead to a career as a doctor, whereas a degree in business studies may lead to many different careers – therefore medicine is more vocational than business studies.

Another example given is Social Work: the three occupations in which social work graduates are most commonly employed are as social workers, welfare and housing associate professionals, and youth and community workers. HEFCE’s study shows 67 per cent of social work graduates who were in employment six months after graduation were employed in these top three highly skilled occupations for that subject area – making it a more vocational course than average (the average is about a third of graduates from a given subject in highly skilled employment are employed in just three occupations.)

The most vocational subjects have been shown to be within veterinary sciences, medicine and dentistry or other subjects allied to medicine. But subjects like information technology, landscape design and civil engineering also have more than half of graduates in highly skilled employment in just three occupations – making them highly vocational courses.

The report then looks at employment and earnings by subject studied to see if there is an advantage to vocational courses:

·        Graduates in more vocational subjects are more likely to be employed in highly skilled roles 6 months after graduation. This is because these subjects have direct routes into specific occupations, many of them in high demand, so it is to be expected that graduates will find work in their speciality soon after graduation.

·        More vocational subjects are associated with higher early career earnings, but not always. For example, operational research, materials science and economics are all in the top 10 subjects for graduate earnings, but score lowly on the vocational rating.

However, less vocational subjects offer graduates a broader range of options, while more vocational subjects restrict these options in a graduate’s early career. The research shows that graduates choosing a less vocational subject that gives a wider range of possible occupations post-graduation are not necessarily disadvantaged by this choice.

Finally, it should be noted that some of the courses measuring most highly as vocational, for example medicine, are also clearly highly academic – and so we should conclude that HE qualifications can be both highly vocational and highly academic, as these characteristics are not mutually exclusive.

Dr Deborah Watson, Director, Gradsouthwest Limited

For HEFCE’s full report go to: