What’s Next? How Students Can Prepare for Tertiary Study

For students at the tail end of their schooling, there’s one question that always comes up: what’s next? Between the uncertainty of the next stage, stress around current school responsibilities and the overall demands of growing up, it can be a hard question to answer or even find time to think about!

People often think that the main educational pathway after school is just university. But with changes to the secondary education system incoming and shifting perspectives on success, it’s important to know that the definition of tertiary education is more extensive than that.

What is tertiary education?

Tertiary education is the umbrella term for all formal education that occurs at the post-secondary level beyond high school. Tertiary studies lead to a variety of different qualifications through different institutions, including university, TAFE, vocational colleges and registered training organisations (RTOs).

The importance of tertiary education is shown in a variety of ways: gaining a tertiary qualification often leads to personal growth, increased employability and higher wages as a professional. In addition, tertiary education offers the chance to learn across an ever-increasing spread of fields and industries, both practically and theoretically, depending on each student’s personal interests.

What is different from school?

Most students understand that secondary and tertiary education are very different things, but often they consider this in terms of the culture and daily activities, and less in terms of the actual study aspect. But learning at the tertiary level is very different: students are required to be far more independent and personally organised than at school, and are required to direct their own study more often.

This isn’t to say that high school students don’t have these important traits, but at the level of tertiary education in Australia there is less structure and fewer people reminding you when things are due. Students typically have fewer hours spent in class per week than at school too, with students expected to use this extra time to coordinate their own study.

The biggest difference between secondary and tertiary education may be the many new styles of teaching and learning, such as lectures, workshops, traineeships and laboratories. With these also come different forms of assessment than what many students are used to, often with higher education standards. Students need to take extra time to carefully consider how best to approach study and work.

Types of tertiary education

The tertiary education sector is broken down into two main areas: higher education and vocational education. Each of these are carried out at different institutions and lead to different qualifications and job prospects.

Tertiary qualifications are regulated by the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF), which is split into 10 levels of tertiary education, ranging from Certificates I and II all the way through to Doctoral Degrees. More information about the levels can be found here.

Vocational Education and Training

Vocational Education and Training (VET) is built around providing specific and practical job skills to students. The role of vocational education is to provide a quicker path into the workforce after school, with a greater emphasis placed on industry information and skills. Vocational education occurs primarily through TAFE (Technical and Further Education) institutes, RTOs and vocational colleges. A TAFE tertiary education gears students to enter the workforce with the necessary practical skill and experience.

Vocational education in Australia falls under the regulation of Australian Skills Quality Agency (ASQA), one of the AQF’s subdomains. ASQA and vocational institutes cover the first four AQF levels (Certificates I through IV), and share levels five (Diploma) and six (Associate Degree; Advanced Diploma) with higher education.

Students can begin a VET course while still at school, giving them a foundation of vocational education and early qualifications they can add to at a tertiary institution. The incoming VCE Vocational Major is designed to be a useful lead-in to tertiary vocational education.

Higher Education

Higher education studies refer to learning and qualifications gained at Australian public and private universities, like RMIT, The University of Melbourne, or Deakin University. A higher education course is typically longer than vocational courses, giving students a breadth of knowledge across a variety of areas subject to their choosing, depending on the higher education provider they choose.

Higher education study is regulated by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), AQF’s other primary body. TEQSA and the higher education sector share levels five and six with vocational education, but cover levels seven through ten in qualifications. These higher education qualifications include: Bachelor Degree; Graduate Certificate; Masters Degree; and Doctoral Degree, amongst others.

What’s right for you?

There may be some discourse out there suggesting that going to university is the superior tertiary option, and all others are inferior, but that is not at all true. The best tertiary option will differ between all students, based on aptitudes, personal interests and relevant tertiary qualifications for them.

The easiest way to begin considering the right option for you is to consider what type of job you would like to work in. If you are interested in a particular career or vocation, it’s worth researching early what kinds of tertiary qualifications professionals in that field are typically required to have, and where you can achieve them. If you’re struggling with this, have a chat with a careers counsellor or some of your teachers and they may be able to point you in the right direction.

Consider as well what you want out of further education, like new skills, an opportunity to live somewhere different, or diving deep into a subject you’re passionate about. This will help inform your decision making and create internal motivation.

Finally, remember that you are always able to study, and that means you don’t have to go straight into it after finishing school if that doesn’t feel right. Many students opt to take a break from studying, either pursuing a job or taking a ‘gap year’ before pursuing further education. This can help clear up what you would like to pursue in terms of a career and also provide a break from learning that some students may truly benefit from.

Preparing well

While you shouldn’t stress yourself out by overthinking about tertiary study, it can be good practice to start considering it early. Here are our top tips to prepare yourself for what comes after school:

  • Pick the right programs in school: With a variety of study options available while you are in high school, try and choose the subjects and pathways that are closely aligned with your plans for tertiary study.
  • Talk to the right people: If you’re weighing up a number of different options for your future, try and get in touch with people who have done the pathways you’re considering and ask them what their experience was like and how they benefited. Your careers team and even some tertiary institute websites should be able to help you find people to connect with.
  • Practice your time management skills: As we noted, tertiary learning and education is very self-directed. Put effort into establishing time management routines and strong tertiary study skills, which should benefit you even while you’re still at school and then into further education.
  • Attend open days: Get a sense of different campuses and further education providers by going to their open days. This is a good opportunity to tour their facilities and infrastructure, learn about what groups and support networks are available, and hear detailed information about courses and learning pathways from key education leaders.

So, what’s next for you?

The final years of school can be stressful, but they are also a wonderful opportunity to learn about your interests and what you would like to do in your life. Make the most of this time by learning how to manage your schedule and responsibilities while still allowing for a healthy social life and downtime.

If you’re ready to start thinking about tertiary options and have questions, have a chat with your teachers and counsellors. At St Francis Xavier College, we provide a pathway for every child, through high school and into what comes next.

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