The legal paperwork for undergraduate certificates

Update 24/07/20: The Commonwealth Grant Scheme Guidelines discussed below have now been amended, including 16 NUHEPs that did not previously receive Commonwealth supported places.


Back in May, I posted on concerns about the legal issues surrounding the new ‘undergraduate certificates’, the half-diplomas announced as part of the Easter Sunday COVID-19 measures. One issue, listing on the Australian Qualifications Framework, was being remedied as I wrote.

Earlier this month, the government ‘designated’ the undergraduate certificates under secton 30-12 the Higher Education Support Act 2003. This has two practical implications.

First, it means that the source of Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding (if any, more soon) for undergraduate certificates moves from the bachelor degree to the sub-bachelor and enabling fund.

If there is no new funding for undergraduate certificates designation is probably bad for universities. Some universities have very low allocations for sub-bachelor places. On 2018 figures, universities with allocations were more likely to be ‘over-enrolled’ on sub-bachelor than bachelor courses. This means that students would be funded on student contributions only, which at discount $1,250 or $2,500 prices would probably not cover the university’s costs.

But if there is new funding for undergraduate certificates, designation allows a specific allocation of places via university funding agreements. Under section 30-10 of HESA, the government cannot allocate places to non-designated courses (because they were supposed to be demand driven).

Under section 30-27 of HESA, the government can increase the maximum basic grant amount for non-designated courses. That would give universities financial capacity for undergraduate certificates, but due to section 30-10 I don’t think the Department can legally bind the universities to spend the money on undergraduate certificates.

The optimistic take on this is that, contrary to what I have understood to be the case previously, universities will at least get some CGS funding for undergraduate certificates.

This is not, however, the end of the legal issues. The short courses could be offered by non-university higher education providers, and as of today 14 NUHEPs are offering 48 short courses.

Funding NUHEPs is not straightforward. Under sections 30-10(4) and 30-20 of HESA, they can only be allocated places in ‘national priority’ fields as set out in the Commonwealth Grant Scheme Guidelines.

As the Guidelines stand, only teaching and nursing courses are ‘national priority’ courses. Some of the short courses fall into these categories, but many do not, including courses in engineering, IT, cyber-security, and non-nursing health fields.

For CGS money to flow, the providers also need to have a funding agreement with the Commonwealth under section 30-1 of HESA. Under section 30-28, these must be published on the Department’s website within 28 days of being made. That hasn’t happened yet.

Under section 36-10 of HESA students are not Commonwealth supported unless their higher education provider has a funding agreement, and under section 90-1 students cannot get a HECS-HELP loan unless they are Commonwealth supported.

Checking the provider websites, there seem to be various solutions. Box Hill Institute is offering $0 student contributions, and will be paid its CGS money in arrears. Endeavour College offers full-fee places as well as CSPs but there appears to be a CSP course with a census date of 26 June; it’s not clear how that is working for a HECS-HELP loan. The Engineering Institute of Technology seems to only offering full-fee undergraduate certificates, which is legally safe under HESA but possibly misleading under consumer law, given the much lower price on Course Seeker.

Some or all of the required legal documents may exist without having gone through the official release processes. But rushed policy seems to be leaving providers and students with unclear legal entitlements.

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