Sunday, May 3, 2020

Undergraduate Certificates to be Added to AQF

The Australian Government announced funding for short online university programs, in response to the COVID-19 Coronavirus, on 12 April 2020. There are 77 programs offer from today on the Courseseeker website (look for course category: "Short course"). These are undergraduate certificates (46) and graduate certificates (31), requiring six months full time study. While welcome, I suggest government make some improvements to the scheme, to allow for part-time study, nested programs, and mutual recognition of the certificates. Also I suggest incorporation of compulsory peer support training in all certificates, to address the elevated mental health risk, particularly for young people isolated at home, studying online, during a pandemic.

Study Areas

The emphasis in the announcement was on areas of study to help with the COVID-19 emergency. This is reflected in the programs offered. With health, including aged care and biomedical science, the largest offering, followed by education:

Study Area Number of Programs
Health 25
Education 18
Information Technology 10
Engineering & Related Technologies 9
Agriculture, Environment & Related Studies 5
Natural & Physical Sciences 5
Architecture & Building 3
Society & Culture 2
Total 77

Acceptance of Certificates

The Minister for Education, Dan Tehan,  caused confusion at the time of the announcement by describing these as "micro-credentials" and "diploma certificates". What are being offered are six month full time programs. A micro-credential is much shorter, requiring only hours, days or weeks of study, not six months. A diploma requires a year of study.

A Graduate certificate is a well known, well understood, and legally recognized term. Such programs have been used in the past as a way for someone from a discipline to gain extra skills and knowledge to work in a specialization. A Graduate Certificate in Australian Migration Law is one path to registration as a migration agent. A certificate in cyber security is useful for an IT professionals to work in security. It can also be an entry point to further studies. As an example, I undertook a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education, to help me learn to teach, and to then go on to a Masters of Educaiton.

Graduate certificates are a low risk, low cost, well understood option for universities to provide. The students are more mature than undergraduates, so are easier to teach. The course materials and classes can be shared with graduate diploma and masters programs.

Legality and Acceptance of Undergraduate Certificates

While graduate certificates are well known, as Andrew Norton points outundergraduate certificates’ are not currently recognized in the Australian education system. If a private for-profit educational institution was to offer such a qualifcaiton, they could expect legal action from regulators. However, public universities are offering these with the blessing of government, with legal status to be conferred retrospectively.

While legal status may not be a major problem, industry acceptance and pedagogy may, with undergraduate certificates. It is likely that the certificates will have been created in the same way as graduate certificates, from components of longer diplomas and bachelor programs. As an example, UWS with its Undergraduate Certificate in Information and Communication Technology offers the possibility of credit towards a degree, and presumably the certificate is built from that degree. However, unlike graduate students, these undergraduate students may be new to university study, as well as to online study. It takes time for a young person (the minimum age is 17 years) to get used to study at university, as well as life in general.

While the undergraduate certificates are being offered as standalone qualifications, I suggest they would be better as the first part of a nested qualification. That is, it would be assumed the student was intending to go on to undertake a diploma, and from there a degree. Ideally this would allow for blended learning. That is the student would undertake some study online and some on campus. My rule of thumb is that a typical student would be on campus for 20% of their study, about one day a week (obviously where COVID-19 restrictions allow).

Do We Need Undergraduate Certificates When We Have VET Ones?

While graduate certificates have been accepted as a qualification for particular roles, undergraduate certificates have not. The Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector already has a well established set of qualifications for jobs in the fields the undergraduate certificates are being offered in. These VET  qualifications have been recognized in laws, and in industry hiring practices. The VET sector is experienced in turning out students who are ready with practical skills needed for a very specific workplace role. However, universities have focused on much longer programs and more general higher level skills. In some cases universities have formed partnerships with VET institutions (or have VET arms), where the student does enough training in VET sector to get a job, then then transitions to university for a degree. It is not clear there is really a need for vocationally useful undergraduate certificates, or than Australia's universities are equipped to provide them.

There is also a lack of alignment between VET sector and university qualifications. As an example, to be able to teach in the VET sector, I was required to complete a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment. This was despite already having a Graduate Certificate in the field of education. In practice I was able to obtain 80% of the VET certificate based on my university experience and education. Even so this took months of elapsed time and payment of additional fees.

Will Universities Value They Own Certificates?

Within the VET system qualifications are mutually recognized, but this does not apply between VET and university, between or within universities. A student who has completed a unit of study at a public or private VET institution has that automatically accepted at any other for credit. However, the UWS Undergraduate Certificate in IC&T "may be credited towards the degree". In this case the university is not guaranteeing to recognize its own certificate for further study, let alone one from another university. If the undergraduate certificates are to continue beyond the next six months, I suggest the government make funding conditional on universities accepting their own certificates, and those from other universities, for advanced standing.

Need Part Time Certificates

I suggest government allow certificates, undergraduate and graduate, to be part time.

The certificates offered under the government COVID-19 funding are all full time. This makes sense as a short term emergency measure. The nation needs health and other workers quickly to deal with the pandemic. It is also a way to keep young people occupied while forced to remain at home. It provides them with a qualification to get a job much quicker than a degree. However, undertaking full time study online is very difficult, especially for a young inexperienced student. Adding to that isolation due to COVID-19 greatly increases the difficulty, and the risk of mental health issues.

It has been common practice for Graduate Certificates to be offered part time. This is useful for working professionals, who cannot take six months off work to study. It is particularly useful with online study. Even so, as an online graduate student I found I could not do more than one quarter of a full time course load comfortably. This was under almost ideal conditions, where I was a mature student with very good IT skills, studying with some of the world's top online educators, and already experienced in the field I was studying. The typical young undergraduate is going to have considerable difficulty studying full time.

Address the elevated mental health risk

Even with all the advantages I had as an online student, it was not the fun depicted in university advertisements: it was a frightening, painful, frustrating experience. The Australian Government ,and universities, need to address the elevated mental health risks, particularly for young people isolated at home, studying online full-time, during a pandemic.

Students are encouraged to take part in extra-curricular and co-curricular activities on campus. This can't be assumed for online students, especially not with COVID-19 measures in place. I suggest universities need to teach students how to form and maintain peer support groups online, and make this an assessed compulsory part of studies. Leaving this as something optional and voluntary, is an unacceptable risk to the health, and the lives, of students. In addition, not teaching students how to support each other will result in a higher dropout rate, and so a waste of public money.

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