Australia to finance new microcredentials from old funding

Government promises response to review’s other recommendations ‘in due course’

December 7, 2021
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Australia’s government will allow universities and colleges to use unspent money to bankroll next year’s crop of short courses, including “innovative” microcredentials developed for both local and overseas consumption.

The government has allocated A$24.5 million (£13 million) for tertiary education providers to create and teach new mini-courses, and another A$8 million for Australian industry to develop up to 70 “globally relevant” microcredentials for delivery overseas.

The reallocation is Canberra’s initial response to the review of university-industry collaboration in teaching and learning, released on 7 December. As previously flagged, the reviewers have recommended three “architectural” changes to the tertiary education landscape along with four “collaborative skill development” initiatives.

They include a new fund to accelerate the creation of “responsive” microcredentials that deliver the types of skills industry needs, provide credit towards longer-form credentials and incorporate “rich skill descriptors”.

The government is financing this by allowing institutions to reuse money they did not expend this year. Universities were allocated well over A$200 million in their 2021 institutional funding agreements for the delivery of graduate certificates, along with “undergraduate certificates” created as a pandemic response measure.

Some institutions appear to have run out of time to spend the money, with education department documents showing that estimates of total student lending this year have been revised downwards by A$54 million.

The government also allocated about A$26 million in the May federal budget to fund non-university higher education providers to offer an extra 5,000 short course places. But the Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia (ITECA) said procedural issues had stymied take-up of the courses.

Chief executive Troy Williams said independent higher education providers were unable to recruit students for federally funded programmes until the funding had been confirmed. “Unfortunately, as the government was late in issuing contracts, providers were unable to advertise the courses,” he said.

The government has also announced that undergraduate certificates will continue to be recognised until at least mid-2025, following talks with the states and territories. The new-look credentials were initially listed on the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) for only a year.

Mr Williams welcomed the extension but said ITECA would focus on “securing a sustainable funding model” for the certificates. “To date, the undergraduate certificates have been supported by a series of one-off announcements by the Australian government,” he said. “This has made it hard for independent higher education providers to plan…over anything but the short-term.”

Tertiary education consultant Claire Field said undergraduate certificates had proven popular during the pandemic. “But if universities are to properly meet Australia’s future skill needs they will also need funding to support more microcredentials for existing workers looking to upskill and reskill,” she said.

Ms Field said universities were already working closely with industry to develop microcredentials appropriate for changing job roles. “Bringing these credentials into the AQF and providing funding to encourage their uptake will also be important.”

The review’s other recommendations include a higher education cadetship programme and expanded work-integrated learning offerings funded through the National Priority Industry Linkage Fund.

Universities Australia backed the ideas. Chief executive Catriona Jackson said that more than 450,000 university students a year took up formal work placements and other “practical simulations” of occupational tasks. “Our only constraint has been the number of places available for students,” she said.

A spokesman for acting education minister Stuart Robert said the government would consider the review’s remaining six recommendations and “respond in due course”.

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