Transitions from Higher Education to (Higher) VET in Spain: Exploring an underresearched learning pathway in STEM

Transitions from Higher Education to (Higher) VET in Spain: Exploring an underresearched learning pathway in STEM

Source / author: 
Iván Diego (Asturias4STEAM-Valnalón)
Publication date: 
22 September 2021
Publication type: 
Blog post

“It is clear that the STEM pipeline metaphor is not an accurate portrayal of the diverse, complex paths that students take to earn STEM degrees.” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016).



Our starting point: An educated guess

Recent VET graduate tracking data coupled with informal conversations with teachers, students and graduates in the Asturias-region of Spain suggest that a steady stream of University Graduates have been enrolling in VET courses/qualifications in recent years. The question is, what are the drivers behind this seemingly counterintuitive career move?


While researchers have devoted time and effort to understand transitions from VET to University, this reverse and seemingly counterintuitive trend has recieved scarce attention in the academic literature.


In 2019 Ulicna et al. suggested this may be a particularly prevalent phenomenon in the last decade in EU countries severely impacted by the 2007-2008 financial crisis, and Spain is for sure one of them.


At the turn of the century Golding (1999ª) unveiled that around 40,000 students in vocational programs in Australia had previously completed a university degree. In Golding words, that was “a large, unabated, delayed, unanticipated flow both from an individual perspective and from a policy perspective occurring in spite of “ugly duckling” status of VET,” (Golding, 2000).  


But is this a nation-specific occurrence or is it more widespread? And more importantly, are STEM graduates part of this flow?



Some STEM-specific research questions

  • How many STEM (higher education) graduates are taking the Higher VET route (EQF Level 5) in Spain?  
  • Do STEM University Graduates follow STEM-related VET qualifications in similar areas?
  • Is this pathway more likely for some groups of STEM degree holders (e.g Science vs Engineering) compared to those with non-related degrees? 
  • What is the impact of this vocational choice on employability and careers?



ETEFIL-19, a source of reliable administrative data.

With the research questions listed above in mind, the first step was to to locate and assess existing data collections to provide nationally comparable information on transitions from Higher Education Graduates to VET.


The Survey on the Transition from Education/Training to Labour Market Insertion (henceforth, ETEFIL-19) met most of our requirements. This statistical research is a joint undertaking of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science, the Ministry of Work and Social Affairs and the National Statistics Institute (INE).


In the latest edition of the survey, a sample of 7800 Higher VET Graduates from the 2014 cohort was contacted five years after graduation (2019) to collect data on current employment status. One of the variables in this dataset (combined with other sources) allows the identification of Higher VET Graduates with a previous University Degree, and thus allows us to answer some key questions.



Interrogating the data

How many persons with a university degree completed a Higher VET course?

In 2013-2014 almost 10% (767 out of 7802) of Higher VET Graduates had already earned a university degree before transitioning into VET. 


In what context did this transition take place?

This group of graduates enrolled in Higher VET in 2012, a year with a 14% unemployment rate for Higher Education Graduates (25-64 yrs old) in Spain 10 points higher than EU average.


How many STEM degree holders moved into Higher VET?

A 30% are STEM graduates coming mainly from "Engineering and Architecture" (17%) and "Science" (13%). The figure increases to almost 40% if you add to the mix a 9.5% of Health Studies degree holders but we have not included this group in the analysis due to the large differences in terms of career paths associated with this programme compared with other STEM degree programmes.


What motivated their decision?

Essentially this was a career development move. 73 % of STEM graduates enrolled in Higher VET with the intention to improve job prospects while another 18 % mentioned personal interest.


When was this decision made?

The data show this decision was not made right after completing a university degree. The median age of STEM graduates at the time of enrolment in Higher VET is 30 years old. More than 35% are 35 or older.


Who are STEM graduates in Higher VET? What’s their academic background?

63% are women.  In addition to the Bachelor's degree, 31 % had also earned a Master's degree before enrolling in Higher VET.  Most frequent points of origin are: Architecture graduates (31%), Sciences (25%) and Engineering (19%).


Which VET tracks do they favour?

We found STEM University Graduates in almost every Higher VET track imaginable, but they tend to choose courses in the fields of Chemistry (13.9%), Computer Science/ICT (9.1 %) and Health Safety & Environment (8.7%)


Is there any relation between previous degree and Higher VET qualification obtained?

Data reveals this group of graduates perceives the Higher VET route as a way of upskilling rather than reskilling. On average, 58% STEM Graduates chose a STEM-related Higher VET course. An example of this upskilling strategy is particularly evident in Earth Sciences graduates with 71% taking a STEM-related VET course.


Did we find STEM graduates in non-STEM Higher VET?

Yes indeed. 31% seemed to be looking for a career move. When you look at the composition of this group we mainly found Architecture (33%), Science (24%) and Engineering (13%) graduates.


Are non-STEM university graduates taking STEM-related VET qualifications?

Yes. In fact, they represent 40% of university graduates enrolled in STEM-related Higher VET Courses. This is particularly evident in Higher VET Computer Science programs where more than half of university graduates come from Humanities and Social Sciences,


What is the employment of STEM Graduates 5 years after completing Higher VET studies? 

88% were in employment in 2019. This employment rate is 9 points higher than the rest of Higher VET graduates in the sample. Same situation rings true for unemployment which is lower for STEM graduates (8% vs 12.6% for the rest of the sample). However the crucial question here is…


What was most influential in obtaining employment, their previous university qualification or their Higher VET credentials?

This is not easy to determine for several reasons. In the first place because 12% got their current job before they earned their Higher VET degree. But things don´t get any easier when you focus on the graduates who found employment after 2014. A typical case would be a Chemistry graduate who obtained a Lab Technician Higher VET credential and 5 years later is working in a lab. In this scenario it is difficult to isolate the impact of the higher VET degree on overall employability. 


One of the few exceptions to this rule is that group of Humanities and Social Sciences graduates in Higher VET programs in Computer Science. In this case, 5 years later 58% work in ICT occupations unequivocally related to their Higher VET degree. However this doesn´t completely rule out the possibility that their previous degree was an additional advantage in obtaining employment.



So what are the implications for STEM Education and STEM pathways in Spain?

First and foremost is the need for further research, especially into the motivations and employment outcomes of STEM graduates making this career choice. While it may be tempting to jump to conclusions merely based in economic terms, making sense of particular transitions to VET after university requires considering a wider range of factors (age, life phase, gender, geographic, personal, linguistic, cultural, social, vocational) over the course of a lifetime (Golding, 2000).


On the policy level, there’s an urgent need to leave behind excessively linear and upward metaphors to represent intersectoral movements between VET and University. In other words, time has come to accept the increasingly non-linear, ambiguous and protracted nature of transitions from school to work and act accordingly.


Impacts could be also seen in enrolment and recruitment strategies. Higher VET courses may be promoted as an alternative and appealing route into STEM for University graduates but also for University Early Leavers and other groups of adults particularly in fields and sectors facing severe recruitment difficulties (eg. ICT).   


Finally, a more sophisticated and open understanding of transitions opens the door for improving career guidance services and efficiency of the education system as a whole. This entails not only a more fluid exchange of information among Universities and VET institutions but also engaging in an open dialogue on an equal footing. Faculty in both sectors need to be knowledgeable about adult life patterns, labour market demands and transitions to accommodate this group of learners in their courses and programs.