Can universities just close loss-making courses?

As international student fee revenues fall universities are closing loss-making subjects and courses. Musicology at Monash. Maths and gender studies at Macquarie. Arts and social science subjects at Sydney. Neuropsychology at La Trobe.

Generally, universities have significant autonomy over what they teach. Changes in courses and subjects occur every year, in good as well as bad economic times.

But the funding agreements universities sign with the government impose some controls over course closures.

For courses leading to occupations deemed to be experiencing a skills shortage, and subjects teaching ‘nationally strategic’ languages, universities have to get government approval prior to closure.

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Disengaged and failing students are an issue worth policy attention

The draft legislation for the Tehan higher education package, released on Tuesday, includes several previously unannounced measures. These include new – or least new for public universities – rules for managing under-performing students.

Among the measures are greater monitoring of student progress, restrictions on study load, and as the media has been reporting today students losing Commonwealth funding if they fail more than half the subjects they have taken. The minister’s media release is here.

I will get to the sometimes arcane detail in a subsequent post (or posts, there is a lot). I am not convinced that the government is going about this in the best way. But I don’t want complaints about the details to obscure the point that this is an area worth policy attention.

In the Grattan Institute Dropping Out report we argued that disengaged students are needlessly incurring HELP debt and blemished academic records. With demand likely to exceed supply for higher education next year, disengaged students are also using Commonwealth supported places that would benefit other people more.

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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.

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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.

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Should ‘undergraduate certificates’ be added permanently to the AQF?

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.Read More »

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.

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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. Read More »

The popularity of online self-education

A couple of weeks ago I posted on the surprising apparent decline of reskilling and retraining. Mature-age undergraduate, postgraduate, vocational qualification, ABS work-related training, and ATO self-education expenses have all trended down in recent years. These trends did not seem consistent with the oft-repeated claims of workplace change and the need to reskill and retrain.

Especially on LinkedIn, much of the reaction to the post suggested that this was due to online self-education as a substitute for credentialed and uncredentialed courses and training. While I haven’t found any time series data on how online self-education  has grown, I am persuaded that this must be a significant part of the explanation.

In a recent Pearson global survey of learners, employed respondents who required further training were asked how they did it. In Australia, organised courses or training are still more widely used than online self-education. But a third of the sample had used this method (chart below).

use Pearson

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