Monday, February 19, 2018

Higher Education in Australia: Short Sharp and Mobile

I have been asked to write a short opinion piece on the future of higher education in Australia, so I thought I would draft it here:

Higher Education in Australia: Becoming Shorter, Sharper and More Mobile

It is an interesting time to be teaching at an Australian university. Business is booming, with record international enrollments. However, international enrollments are subject to the vagaries of international politics. At the same time industry and government are suggesting universities need to do more to produce work-ready graduates.

Conventional wisdom now is that people will have many careers and so need a generalist education, regularly topped up with short intensive training and skills recognition. There are also proposals to abandon the existing system because courses are too large, expensive and inflexible, instead leaving it to private enterprise to provide short flexible courses, and "micro-credentials". However, I suggest the Australian higher education system can, and is, adjusting to meet new requirements.

Australia has a higher education system which extends from upper secondary school to advanced degrees. The system allows for apprenticeships for industry and advanced research doctorates. The system accommodates government owned universities and TAFEs, thousands of private registered training organizations and currently has one for-profit university owned by a corporation.

Australia's first university, the University of Sydney, was founded the 1850, with the dual purposes of cultural enrichment and economic advancement:
"Whereas it is deemed expedient for the better advancement of religion and morality and the promotion of useful knowledge, to hold forth to all classes and denominations of Her Majesty’s subjects resident in the Colony of New South Wales, without any distinction whatsoever, an encouragement for pursuing a regular and liberal course of education ..." University of Sydney Act 1850 (UK), Public Statutes of New South Wales
Distance education commenced at the University of New England in 1955. There were misgivings over "Degrees by Correspondence", however UNE went on to influence the design of the Open University (UK):
"We had been fortunate in attracting to the Open University in 1969, for a spell of three months, Mr Howard Sheath, who had been Head of the External Division of the University of New England for many years." (Perry, p. 59,  1976).

Australia's first short vocational course was more than two hundred years before this, aboard the first fleet, with a Royal Navy officer teaching reading to the convicts on their way from England (Whitelock, 1974).

Tertiary education in Australia is provided by 43 universities, most of which are government not-for profit institutions, but there is one private for-profit. In the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector there are approximately 40 state government technical and further education (TAFE) institutions and more than 4,000 mostly private for-profit from Registered Training Organization (RTO) providers.

In 1995 the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) was introduced to fit the education provided by all these institutions (plus secondary schools) into one framework. The AQF has ten levels, from Level 1 to prepare for a first job, to Level 10, a doctoral degree.

There is an overlap between secondary schools and VET providing the lower AQF qualifications (mostly Levels 1 to 3: Certificate I to IV). There is also an overlap between universities at VET at the middle levels, 5 to 7 with both awarding Diplomas, Advanced Diplomas and Bachelor Degrees.

VET institutions offer nationally standardized  qualifications. There are almost 1,500 qualifications, built from 17,000 units of competency. Units of competency can be used in multiple qualifications, with the units "Lead and manage organizational change" (BSBINN601) used in 28 qualifications. Each units of competency is defined in terms of the outcome and assessment. While the qualification and unit definitions are standardized and public, the method of instruction and course materials are up to the individual institutions. Even so, the units of competency are interchangeable between institutions, with students able to obtain credit from one institution for units completed at another

Universities currently offer less standardized qualifications. Unlike the VET sector, each university designs its own degrees and courses. Some universities offer hundreds of different degrees made up from thousands of courses, none of which are offered at any other institution. A student transferring between universities will be offered some credit for previous study, but will likely not be granted credit for all their work, due to the lack of standardization.

Some level of standardization of courses comes about with university consortia, the best known being Open Universities Australia OUA).  Students of OUA can select courses from multiple universities in the consortium and credit these to a degree from one.

A level of degree standardization is also imposed by external accreditation bodies, such as the Australian Computer Society.

Future Shorter Courses

A Bachelor Degree from a university requires three years full time study. This is usually assumed to require twice as long for part time study, but students typically take longer. That is a very long time between enrollment and being able to present a qualification to a prospective employer.

The VET system typically offers certificates, requiring 3 to 4 months full time study. Again this could be considerably longer for part time students. However, VET also provides for "Recognition of Prior Learning" (RPL), where a student, in effect, does undertakes the assessment component of a unit, based on their prior knowledge of the subject. This can considerably shorten study time. As an example, I obtained 80% of a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment, based on my prior university education and teaching experience.

RPL is less common in the university sector. However, recognition of forms of learning outside formal courses is becoming more common. Students may be required to gain experience in a workplace, providing evidence through a journal, project report, or reports from supervisors. This apprentice or intern approach is common in VET vocational programs and some university professional degrees in health care and engineering.