The legal problems of ‘undergraduate certificates’

Update 4/5/20: It seems that State education ministers have agreed to temporarily putting ‘undergraduate certificates’ on the AQF.

Update 5/5/20: My take on whether ‘undergraduate certificates’ should stay on the AQF.


The COVID-19 higher education ‘short courses’ – four subjects at discount student contributions – are now appearing on CourseSeeker. As of this morning, there are 64 courses from eleven universities.

Most of them are graduate certificate courses. While letting the minister announce lower student contributions sets a bad precedent, these courses are not otherwise problematic. A graduate certificate is a credential listed in both the funding legislation and the Australian Qualifications Framework.  The university can legally receive Commonwealth Grant Scheme payments and the student is eligible for HECS-HELP.

The same cannot confidently be said for the other short courses. Although the minister’s early terminology of a ‘diploma certificate’ is not used, as of this morning there are 17 ‘undergraduate certificates’ (such as an Undergraduate Certificate in Information and Communication Technology) from three universities and a Professional Certificate in Aged Care from a fourth institution.

Neither an undergraduate nor a professional certificate is in the AQF, but the term ‘undergraduate certificate’ raises particular issues. Section 110 of the TEQSA Act 2011 prohibits untruthfully representing that a course of study leads to a regulated higher education award. Such an award is in turn defined as being a diploma or above or ‘an award of a similar kind, or represented as being of a similar kind, to any of the above [ie diploma plus] awards’ (section 5).

The word ‘certificate’ is not, in my view, inherently or strongly associated with higher education. School certificates, vocational education certificates, and the numerous unofficial certificates handed out by other organisations would all, for most people, come to mind before a higher education certificate. The term ‘professional certificate’ sounds more like a certificate issued by a professional association than a university.

But adding the word ‘undergraduate’, with its strong higher education association, gives the impression that the course leads to a legally-recognised higher education qualification, exacerbated by the CourseSeeker classification of ‘other undergraduate award course’ (emphasis added). ‘Undergraduate certificate’ is a legally questionable term.

Similar issues are raised by the Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards). The standards allow for higher education providers to issue non-AQF qualifications, but these cannot be described using AQF nomenclature or implied to be an AQF qualification or an equivalent qualification.

Although universities can offer students subjects in non-AQF but distinctly branded credentials, they cannot enrol these students in a Commonwealth supported place. Under section 36-10(1)(b) of the Higher Education Support Act 2003 subjects that get Commonwealth support must be part of a course of study in which the student is enrolled. Other than for enabling courses, a course of study is defined as one of the AQF higher education qualifications.

In turn, the student has to be Commonwealth supported to be eligible for HECS-HELP: section 90-1(c) of HESA 2003.

From the FAQs issued by the Department, I assume that as a legal workaround to get public funding the students will be formally enrolled in an AQF course. In the case of undergraduate certificates that would usually be a diploma. But this is not being made clear to prospective students. It is alluded to on a general CourseSeeker page about the short course scheme, but the course pages give a different impression. 

For example, on the Courseeker page for the ICT undergraduate certificate mentioned above it says that ‘completion of this Certificate may qualify you for entry to the Diploma in Information and Communications Technology/Bachelor of ICT. Units completed in the Certificate may be credited towards the degree’ (emphasis added) . The university’s own website also gives the impression that the undergraduate certificate is a pathway to other courses, rather than an exit point from these courses.

I am not sure that this satisfies the requirement in the threshold standards to provide  ‘accurate, relevant and timely’ information to prospective students. I don’t think that this is any major breach of the standards. There is no obvious detriment to the student that would be likely to make them change their mind. But this rushed re-purposing of diploma subjects is leading to bad practice in student information.

To retrospectively solve these legal problems the minister will seek the agreement of his state and territory education minister colleagues to add ‘undergraduate certificates’ to the AQF. Whether the other education ministers should agree to this change will be discussed in another post.




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