Australia appears set to back away from its prescriptive qualifications hierarchy, in the latest example of policy catch-up with the UK.
The federal government has appointed a panel to review the Australian Qualifications Framework, a 112-page document that lays out a 10-level taxonomy of tertiary credentials from basic certificates to PhDs, each with associated “learning outcomes”.
Australia was an early adopter of qualifications frameworks, which offer a transparent way of comparing learning levels nationally and internationally. But overseas nations are harnessing them for a new purpose, according to consultants contracted to provide “contextual research” for the review.
“Other countries, particularly in Europe, have moved towards qualifications frameworks as a tool to facilitate an agile workforce suited to rapid technological, industrial and social change,” they say.
The analysis, by PhillipsKPA, appraised qualifications frameworks in 21 nations and provinces in Europe, Asia, North America and Africa. It found a growing emphasis on “horizontal” as well as vertical pathways, with skills and professional training often placed at equivalent levels to degrees – unlike Australia, where vocational education occupies the lower rungs.
Almost all countries had stated policy goals to “strengthen vocational training pathways” and incorporate informal training into “the continuum of learning opportunities”, the report says.
“These objectives reflect a progression from historical qualifications frameworks, which concerned themselves primarily with parity and quality at degree level as represented by the Bologna Process, to [using] qualifications frameworks to optimise the productive capacity of the entire workforce.”
The report suggests that the “first generation” of qualifications frameworks – developed in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK – is giving way to a new generation of European frameworks focused on “communication and transparency rather than regulation and harmonisation”.
European frameworks are being co-opted as social and economic policy tools as well as serving as quality assurance mechanisms, it says, and “aid and trigger reform rather than impose ‘one-fit-for-all’ rules and regulations”.
An example of this is England and Northern Ireland, where the National Qualifications Framework and the Qualifications and Credit Framework were replaced by the less prescriptive Regulated Qualifications Framework.
By contrast, the AQF struggles to support credit transfer and does not even acknowledge micro-credentials, despite this being an era of lifelong learning and frequent career change.
Announcing the review panel, education minister Simon Birmingham indicated that the government had taken the report’s advice to heart.
“It’s vital we have a future framework that is adaptable and flexible to the demands of industry,” he said. “The review will look at changing qualification and course offerings such as the rise of micro-credentials.”
The assistant minister for vocational education, Karen Andrews, said the framework needed to meet the needs of adults changing careers as well as school-leavers entering the workforce. “We want students to have access to a wide variety of tools to help them make informed decisions.”
The review panel is headed by Victoria University policy veteran Peter Noonan and includes the president of the Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows, former James Cook University deputy vice-chancellor Sally Kift.
Also on the panel are Elizabeth More, business dean at private college the Australian Institute of Management, and Megan Lilly, head of workforce development with representative body Australian Industry Group.
The panel will consult around a discussion paper expected in the next few months. It is due to report by the middle of next year.