Vocational Courses vs Academic Degrees: Are Students Overlooking Their Best Fit?

Ever wondered when to suggest vocational education, or how much it differs from more academic routes? Help students maximise their potential with our handy guide.

Vocational courses vs academic degrees

We’ve all heard of the division between vocational courses and academic ones.

Broadly speaking, vocational courses take practical and hands-on approaches, teaching skills like plumbing, programming and film editing. Academic courses tend toward the theoretical, and consider more traditional subjects like literature, history and maths.

But, as is usually the case, this separation - and the associated preconceptions - isn’t all so black and white.

In recent years, vocational offerings have expanded and diversified hugely. You can find courses all the way up to doctorate level, and spanning fields from designing theatre sets to building space ships.

The wide variety of vocational courses on offer, paired with the increasingly competitive job market, mean that this option is becoming more and more popular. After all, a vocational qualification teaches students the practical skills they need to start climbing the professional ladder as soon as they graduate, and can be a great way of standing out to employers.

If you’re seeing more of your students consider vocational options and want to know more about how they work, we’re here to help.

In this article, we delve into the myths and nuances of the vocational vs academic debate, and answer some of the questions students are likely to have. What does a vocational course look like? How are these courses different from more traditional degrees? And what should students consider when choosing between an academic and a vocational pathway?

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Benefits of a vocational education

Despite the benefits and diversity of vocational courses, old myths and misconceptions still lurk, casting doubt into students’ and parents’ minds as they consider post-secondary paths.

You might find that some parents are less enthusiastic about their children embarking on vocational higher education. When they were in school, there may have been stronger stereotypes or anecdotal experiences of vocational courses being suggested for students who were less academically successful.

League tables can seem to support these assumptions, with few vocational institutions included in the major university rankings. But these tables aren’t always the reliable indicators some people think. One of the main criteria they tend to take into account is the institution’s research. The sticky point here is that vocational institutions often emphasise practical training rather than research. As a result, they’re unlikely to rank highly.

Still, there are plenty of exceptions, and many vocational institutions confer Bachelor’s, Master’s and even doctorate degrees, while others offer different but equivalent qualifications.

In reality, the distinction between academic and vocational routes is not based on intelligence, but approach, and these pesky preconceptions are slowly but surely wearing away. As a result, many students these days are considering vocational education as a viable option.

Here’s why…

Vocational courses help students develop practical skills

The goal of any vocational program is to teach students the hard skills their chosen profession requires. Some even award professional qualifications and accreditations, many of which are equal to a Bachelor’s or even a Master’s degree.

What this all means is that students who have taken the vocational route can start work sooner and sometimes even in a more senior role than their academic counterparts. After all, they already have the skills and experience the employer needs!

In fact, many employers nowadays value professional qualifications and on-the-ground experience as much as a traditional degree. A wealth of industry knowledge and work experience can be just the edge students need to stand out in the applicant pool.

Vocational courses allow students to learn in different ways

For students who don’t feel they thrive in a traditionally academic environment, vocational options can give them their chance to shine. Rather than contemplating ideas or memorising dates, students will learn by doing.

The assessments align with the teaching methods. If a student is keen to reduce the amount of written exams and essays they’ll have to do, they might find a vocational course that keeps these to a bare minimum - and some don’t require them at all.

An additional benefit is that vocational courses tend to have smaller classes. That means students get more of their instructors’ attention and personalised guidance. Plus, combined with more contact hours, students often forge stronger bonds with coursemates and instructors.

Vocational courses are more affordable than academic degrees

A big consideration for any student considering their next steps is budget. On the whole, students who are keen to minimise their spending are likelier to find suitable options in the vocational category.

Some vocational courses last as long as (and even longer) than standard academic Bachelor’s. Students attend Japan’s engineering KOSEN from the age of 15 (or 18 for international students) until they are at least 22. Degrees from German or Dutch Universities of Applied Sciences also tend to last four years.

But there is much more variety of duration in vocational courses than in the conventionally academic world. In fact, some vocational courses take as little as six months, and many are only a year or two.

For example, students in the UK can earn a Hair & Makeup Artistry diploma in 6 months, and budding chefs can gain a Professional Cookery diploma in just a year!

A shorter course means that overall, students are paying fewer tuition and enrolment fees. Some vocational courses also have lower fees from the get-go, offering a per-semester saving regardless of course duration.

Better still, because vocational education almost always includes paid placements and work experience, students will earn as they learn!

“With four-fifths of employers expecting to increase higher skilled roles in the coming years, offering clear progression routes through higher technical qualifications will be essential to creating a sustainable and inclusive future economy.”

Matthew Percival: Confederation of British Industry, People and Skills Director

What are vocational courses, and how are they different?

With so many different viewpoints, subjects and structures, it can be difficult to nail down a single definition. But courses’ content, delivery and assessment are crucial considerations for students researching their next steps. They can also help distinguish more vocational courses from academic ones.

Content

One of the first questions you and your students will have about any course is what will be taught. It’s also one of the key ways of separating vocational and academic degrees.

One handy summary might be to think of the content of academic courses as a vehicle toward soft and intellectual skills, whereas the hard, hands-on skills a vocational course imparts themselves make up the content of the course.

It’s useful to think of some popular examples:

  • Nursing
  • Renewable energy technologies
  • Game programming
  • Civil engineering
  • Film set design
  • Patisserie

As you can see, vocational courses range hugely in content, and demand all kinds of skill-sets. That means there’s no one sub-set of students which leans towards vocational education. They’re as likely to come from the art department as the maths one. Their chosen vocational course will give them the opportunity to hone their particular skills towards their chosen profession.

That means that as a general rule, vocational course content has a narrower focus and a more tangible objective.

An academic history degree, for example, will incorporate politics, sociology, economics, psychology and more, and cross years and the globe in scope. It equips students with an array of soft skills (analytical thought, logical reasoning, debate, reading critically and so on).

On the other hand, an aviation technology course will be exclusively concerned with teaching students how to build, maintain and repair aircraft.

Delivery

Vocational courses are extremely practical in their delivery. It’s unlikely that students will spend much time in large lecture halls listening to presentations, or exchanging philosophical notions in seminar groups.

On the contrary, vocational courses allow students to get right into the action and learn by doing. As we mentioned, one thing almost all vocational courses share is that they involve real work experience.

For example, courses at Germany’s Universities of Applied Sciences require at least one of students’ six to eight semesters to be paid training placements. Japan’s KOSEN (vocational schools of engineering) also emphasise internships and have students in labs and building real products - yes, including robots!

There are also important differences in terms of contact hours. If students envisage university as a time to see professors a few hours a week and spend the rest of their time learning independently, a vocational course is not what they’re looking for.

Vocational courses tend to involve students working full-time, even while they aren’t on industrial placements: they should expect to be ‘in-class’/on-the-job from 9-5, five days a week. While this isn’t a hard and fast rule (what is?), it’s something students should be comfortable with before embarking on a vocational course.

Assessment

Assessment is a pivotal part of any qualification. It's often a top priority for students weighing up vocational vs academic offerings. We’ve all seen students who are stellar in the classroom, whose homework scores highly every time, but whose nerves get the better of them in exams! Likewise, you’ll know students who don’t enjoy extended coursework projects but shine in a timed assessment.

As ever, knowing their strengths and preferences is the first, crucial step.

For students who hate written exams or lengthy essays, vocational education probably fits the bill. Assessment for these courses is usually continuous, rather than one big exam or piece of work. Some vocational courses will certainly incorporate an extended project and/or final assessments, but these will likely be more practical in nature.

Of course, an accountancy or hotel management qualification may well involve written essays or exams. If this is a big selling point for your students, make sure they do their research beforehand!

Where can students apply to vocational courses?

Vocational courses are on offer around the world! Some can be found in traditional universities, while others might be offered in colleges or even community centres.

There are also lots of universities and other institutions dedicated entirely to vocational education. Germany and the Netherlands have particularly esteemed Universities of Applied Sciences.

In the UK former polytechnics, now known as ‘new universities’, provide a huge range of in-depth vocational courses.

Japan’s KOSEN and South Korea’s Industrial Universities and Junior Colleges offer specialist options to students interested in Asia Pacific.

It's also worth noting that many of these vocational courses and institutions are specifically geared towards international students. They have special support, extra-curricular societies, bilingual courses and more to ensure international students get settled in. Students don’t need to narrow their geographic scope just because they’re interested in vocational study!

In fact, it's not just from pastoral or practical standpoints that vocational institutions are thinking globally. With globalization ramping up and affecting almost every profession, many vocational institutions foreground their international approach in their course content and delivery, too. And by choosing a course abroad, students will gain the international skills and perspectives that employers so value, as well as the vocational skills - a double whammy for employability!

This has proven a popular tactic: more than 75,000 international students are currently enrolled at German UAS, for example.

Helping students decide between vocational and academic approaches

For some students, the decision will be straightforward. If they want to be a special effects make-up artist, for example, an academic degree wouldn’t be necessary, or include those hard skills. If they picture their future as an ink-stained literature professor, an academic degree is a prerequisite.

Most students fall somewhere in between the extreme examples of a make-up technician and a literature professor, and - as most counsellors know first-hand - a huge majority are not so certain of their ultimate goal.

Equally, you can approach many subjects - like engineering, nursing and film directing - from either a vocational or an academic standpoint. It's not always as simple as pinning down a career goal or subject of study.

Why might students prefer an academic degree?

Although vocational education has a lot of strengths, many of your students will be naturally inclined towards a more traditionally academic education. Vocational courses aren’t right for everyone!

If you’re unsure of when to recommend students stick to the academic route, these are some factors to consider:

  • Students who are undecided about their careers can keep their options more open with academic courses.
  • There’s more opportunity for independent study and thought in academia. Deep thinkers, autonomous learners and students who love reading around a subject might not enjoy a vocational approach.
  • Academic degrees are often more flexible. They can allow students to explore outside of the department and choose from an array of optional modules. Got restless learners with infinite curiosity? A narrower vocational approach may not be the best fit.
  • Likewise, academic courses allow students to learn a wider range of subjects and skills. Even their core modules give a broader overview than highly-specific vocational options.
  • Some jobs (like literature professorships!) still require an academic degree. Students should think about their ultimate career goals and whether an academic degree will be required.

Why might students prefer a vocational course?

As we’ve seen in this article, vocational education has a whole host of attractive features. Which students should guidance counsellors consider steering towards vocational options?

  • Students who are certain of their chosen career - if it’s one that requires vocational training. In these cases, it often makes sense for them to skip the academic degree and dive straight into career training.
  • Students who prefer hands-on learning to long essays and abstract thought. If they want to be doing things rather than thinking about them, then vocational education might be right for them.
  • Students who are eager to start working as soon as possible.
  • Students who are interested in maximising their earning potential straight after graduation rather than having to spend time gaining unpaid or poorly-paid experience might want to think about vocational options. Of course, earnings depend on all kinds of factors!
  • Students who want to learn much more in-depth about one specific area rather than get an aerial overview of a broader subject are good candidates for vocational paths.

Ultimately, the choice between vocational and academic paths is a really personal one. It depends on factors like learning preferences and strengths as much as budget and career aspiration. 

That’s why the questions and areas in this article are so important.

And we have good news. We’ve put together a free eBook dedicated to these big questions. For our tips on learning style assessments, researching destinations and creating a shortlist of courses, be sure to give it a read.

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