Experts question Australia’s microcredential proposal

Commentators express doubts over Canberra’s online road to post-pandemic prosperity

April 14, 2020

While Australian universities have greeted the government’s new online course proposals with cautious enthusiasm, commentators privately doubt their viability.

The “higher education certificates”, part of a relief package announced on 12 April, are designed to encourage the higher education sector to focus on Australia’s domestic needs. The aim is to retrain “people who’ve had their lives turned upside down by the coronavirus” in occupations expected to be in demand when the pandemic passes.

“If life gives you lemons, you make lemonade,” education minister Dan Tehan told a 12 April press conference. “Rather than bingeing on Netflix, binge on studying.

“Binge on a teaching degree, a nursing degree, an allied health degree – areas where we need people as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.”

The six-month courses are scheduled to begin in May as components of recognised degrees, with income-contingent loans available to cover heavily discounted fees of A$1,250 (£635) or A$2,500 per course. Mr Tehan said short programmes in online teaching, health administration and aged care were already being developed by Swinburne University, Western Sydney University (WSU) and the University of South Australia (UniSA).

UniSA said it hoped to “confirm details in the coming weeks”. WSU confirmed a course in health administration “which we already had in motion”. La Trobe University said it was “preparing a range of relevant courses for government approval”. UNSW Sydney deputy vice-chancellor Merlin Crossley said branches of his university that specialised in “teaching highly efficiently” would “mobilise rapidly” to take advantage of the new arrangements.

But privately, commentators questioned whether the courses would attract students or lead to jobs. Governments that tried to second guess market needs inevitably got it wrong, they said, citing Australia’s ill-fated attempts to bankroll industry-focused vocational qualifications.

The A$2.1 billion Productivity Places Programme was scrapped halfway through what was supposed to be a five-year term, while the VET Fee-Help loans scheme lost billions of dollars to fraud and mismanagement.

Commentators also questioned whether staff who had spent weeks transferring university offerings online would have the energy or time to invest in creating a suite of new credentials. Sally Kift, president of the Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows (ALTF), highlighted the difficulty of aligning the proposed courses with recognised qualifications.

The proposal’s biggest problem appears to be a lack of funding, with the government offering little additional money to subsidise the courses. Universities carry the cost of fee discounts totalling thousands of dollars per student. 

Australian National University analyst Andrew Norton said there were also moral objections. Universities would have to enrol the students in full degree programmes, “knowing full well” that many would drop out after completing a few subjects, he said

“It would normally be highly unethical to encourage someone not to complete a course in order to manipulate the funding system,” he added.

Professor Norton said the government should formalise the new arrangements rather than “turning a blind eye” to this distortion of normal practice. “There are good reasons why we don’t normally have [loans] for single subjects," he continued.

“There’s value to the qualification over and above a few subjects. The qualification is something recognised by employers, that will actually help you get a job. Unless they’ve already got you on their books, employers won’t know what to make of one or two subjects on a transcript.”

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