As of this morning eight universities are offering 43 ‘undergraduate certificates’ in the government’s university short courses program. Last week I outlined the then multiple legal and funding difficulties of ‘undergraduate certificates’.
But as I was writing that blog post a band aid legal fix was being applied. Undergraduate certificates have been temporarily added to the Australian Qualifications Framework. They can be awarded between this month and December 2021. This gets universities, and the Department, which otherwise lacked legal authority to pay Commonwealth Grant Scheme or HELP money to universities, off the legal hook.
Apart from highlighting AQF governance weaknesses – it is just an agreement between education ministers – this leaves the question of what happens to undergraduate certificates after December 2021.
The links between short courses and qualifications
In answering this question we are not starting with a blank sheet of paper. The AQF recently had a major review, which reported in October last year. The review was sympathetic, as I am in general, to helping students build towards a credential. Students don’t necessarily want or need a formal qualification, but where they do we should, where we can do so efficiently with low integrity risks, help them achieve their goal incrementally and cost effectively.
In line with this objective, the AQF review recommended better processes for aligning short courses and microcredentials to AQF qualifications where education providers want to do this. Undergraduate certificate subjects are already aligned with an AQF qualification, as they are part of longer courses leading to diplomas or bachelor degrees.
But the review did not recommend an ‘undergraduate certificate’, which is half as long as a diploma, the shortest undergraduate qualification before late last week. Indeed, so far as I am aware, no six-month undergraduate qualification had been proposed before Easter Sunday 2020.
There can be value in taking subjects without finishing a qualification (a Grattan report I worked on found benefits from incomplete bachelor degrees, for example). But a qualification should be more than the sum of its parts. It should provide some cumulative, coherent body of knowledge and skills. Students deepen their understanding of a topic if they also see how it connects to other topics related to it by discipline, occupation or problem.
This is possible in a six month graduate certificate, the most common short course being offered. Many graduate certificates are related to qualifications or jobs the students already have (or did have, for those who recently lost their jobs). I am less convinced that people new to higher education or a discipline can, in four subjects over six months, acquire a body of knowledge that is substantial enough to warrant a higher education qualification.
Qualifications and employment
For employers, a qualification has information value. It quickly tells them who is likely to possess the bundle of skills and knowledge that they want, as well as giving other signals: that the person was intelligent enough to get admitted to university in the first place, is persistent and organised enough to complete the degree, and so on. Protecting this information value is one reason for regulating certain qualification titles.
While new qualifications are sometimes desirable, it takes time for employers to understand what they mean. A new qualification won’t, initially at least, necessarily have much value for job seekers if employers don’t understand it. It might even be a negative – why did they do this course, when established courses already do much the same thing?
If we want students to train or retrain for work, which was the original objective of the short course policy, we should encourage them to take full AQF courses that are designed as a coherent whole and are already understood by employers. This is one reason why funding legislation is biased towards subjects that are taught within qualifications.
‘Undergraduate certificates’ that nobody had heard of until very recently, and which look to have been quickly created by universities with little time for checking with occupational regulators, professional bodies or employers, could be selling students false hope.
From a broader public policy perspective, other issues also need considering. As the AQF review noted, the qualification systems is referenced in many pieces of legislation and legal rules – about 100 as of today on the Commonwealth’s statute books, 33 in Victorian law, and presumably similar numbers in other states. It is in industrial awards, in private systems of occupational and professional accreditation, and internal rules of education providers. There should be consultation and careful checking for unintended consequences.
There are also potential omissions where the AQF is not directly used but specific qualifications are mentioned in legal instruments. This is the case for the student income support system. A student who enrols in an ‘undergraduate certificate’ is not eligible for income support, but a student who enrols in a diploma can receive benefits.
When the government removed sub-bachelor courses from the demand driven system it specifically named diplomas and associate degrees as not being eligible. Although the government is trying to blur the funding distinctions between qualification levels, this means that funding for undergraduate certificates comes out of the ‘non-designated’ funding that was until last Friday exclusively for bachelor degree courses, rather than the ‘designated’ funding for diplomas, associate degrees, graduate certificates and other postgraduate coursework degrees.
Another important issue is potential duplication of and confusion with vocational education certificates. Some of the undergraduate certificates are in fields, such as aged or disability care and early childhood education, in which vocational education is strong. Someone who wants a quick entry to one of these fields is likely to be better off with a vocational certificate, unless they are aiming for a diploma or above higher education qualification. It would be bad if students enrolled in a undergraduate certificate thinking that it was the same thing as the vocational certificates they already knew about.
The intentions in creating these short courses were good. Helping people find ways back into work is a responsibility of the education system as a whole. But messing with the qualifications system, which helps get students, education providers, employers and regulators on the same, and hopefully the right, page is not something that should be done without careful consideration.
We have some well thought-through recommendations from the AQF Review, and we should start with these in deciding where to go next. I would be surprised if education ministers decided that an ‘undergraduate certificate’ should be a long-term part of the qualifications framework.