Australia accepts qualifications framework recommendations

Sleepless summer beckons for policy wonks, as Canberra endorses another major review

December 9, 2019
A green pencil beside ticked boxes
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Australia’s higher education policy specialists face more hard work, after Canberra backed the findings of another major inquiry.

The federal government has announced its response to the review of the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF), headed by policy veteran Peter Noonan, which reported in October.

The government says that it has “accepted all recommendations of the review in relation to higher education”. It has also “accepted the aims of recommendations of the review in relation to vocational education, contingent on further discussions with state and territory governments”.

This bifurcated response illustrates the difficulty that education minister Dan Tehan faces in realising his frequently stated ambition to “reshape the higher education architecture”. While higher education policy and funding are federal responsibilities, vocational education is overseen by the states and territories.

Consequently, changes to vocational education would need to be negotiated through a congress of skills ministers convened biannually under the auspices of the Council of Australian Governments.

Professor Noonan’s key recommendations included freeing up pathways between vocational and higher education, making it easier for schooling and vocational credentials to be credited towards degrees, and formally recognising microcredentials in the AQF.

His review also proposed an overhaul of the highly prescribed AQF hierarchy of 10 levels, which range from basic vocational certificates to doctoral degrees. In its place would be a structure of eight knowledge bands and six skill bands, allowing more overlap between higher and vocational qualifications.

Professor Noonan’s panel urged the government to adopt a five-stage implementation process – including establishing an external governance body “to oversee progress”, and consulting extensively before formalising any changes – to “mitigate” the impacts not only on education and training but also related areas such as industrial awards and migration policy.

This would take more than two years, the report predicted. Moreover, while the panel made 21 recommendations, none related exclusively to higher education.

Nevertheless, some of the recommendations could be implemented on a sector-by-sector basis. They include the proposal to recognise short-form credentials, including microcredentials, in the AQF.

It would also be relatively straightforward to proceed with the higher education aspects of proposals for a voluntary “credit point system” – which would underpin a nationally consistent approach to negotiating advanced standing from prior studies – and for the “notional durations” of credentials to be expressed in hours rather than years.

The government has now offered detailed responses to three pivotal reviews in the past four months, having also outlined its plans for performance-based funding and the distribution of subsidies for postgraduate and sub-bachelor places.

Mr Tehan has also promised a response to another key policy appraisal, former Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake’s review of higher education provider category standards, by the end of the year.

In a statement, Mr Tehan said that the AQF review’s recommendations would help give the qualifications system the flexibility to meet student and employer demand. “We are providing structure and clarity to vocational and higher education to reflect the real world,” he said.

“We want to make it easier for Australians to move between vocational training and higher education and to earn microcredential qualifications that will improve their productivity. These reforms will cut red tape and improve the operation and quality of education in Australia.”

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