Traversing the education sectors and the Australian Qualifications Framework
by Ron Mazzachi and Ashlea Bartram, NCVER
The Australian federal government is seeking to increase the number of Australians holding a diploma or degree, including through a demand-driven approach to providing qualifications. These developments will see more students negotiating their way between the vocational education and training (VET) and higher education (HE) sectors. Therefore, it is timely to consider if adequate arrangements are in place to make this an easier process.
Australia's VET system is underpinned by the National Skills Framework, which is designed to ensure that training delivered across the nation is consistent and of similar quality. The framework has three pillars: the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF), training packages and the Australian Quality Training Framework (AQTF). The AQF organises the types of qualifications available and the relationships between them, while training packages, developed in consultation with industry, specify the set of competencies a graduate should demonstrate within an occupation. The AQTF aims to ensure that registered training organisations have qualified staff, suitable facilities and equipment, and appropriate training and assessment materials. Here we will focus on the AQF.
The AQF is a system of national qualifications covering the school, VET and HE sectors. It was introduced to ensure consistency across Australia's eight states and territories and provide a framework for a single system of school, work-based and academic qualifications. Along with the UK and New Zealand, Australia was one of the first countries to introduce such a framework. For VET, the AQF helped create a national approach out of the separate, and at times disparate, pre-existing state-based training systems. By specifying just 15 qualification types across the three sectors, the AQF limits the proliferation of different qualification types by making qualifications easier to accept and understand for business and students alike. The framework has a high level of acceptance within each education sector and is well-regarded internationally. However, the AQF struggles in improving pathways between the different sectors, particularly VET and HE.
With the spotlight on increasing the skill level of Australians, transfer between the education sectors is becoming an imperative. Smooth credit transfer arrangements or articulation can help improve the efficiency of training by recognising prior learning. Such arrangements can also help achieve equity goals: VET potentially provides a more accessible pathway into HE for disadvantaged groups. However, transition between the sectors is hampered by key differences in the nature of training and assessment. This is because VET takes a competency-based approach in contrast to the knowledge-based approach of HE.
By looking at the HE statistical collection of all Australian universities we can see that across Australia, approximately one in five students gain some credit for prior learning, but this varies considerably by institution. The largest amount of credit is awarded where there are specific arrangements between a VET and a HE provider for a particular course combination, or where, thanks usually to the efforts of committed individuals, there is agreement on the amount of credit a university faculty will award to a VET student. The field of study is also relevant: the most credit is obtained in vocationally-oriented fields such as teaching, nursing and business. In contrast, VET does not lead as well into more theoretical areas such as arts and general science; perhaps in reflection of this, the sandstone Group of Eight research-intensive universities in Australia have relatively fewer credit transfer arrangements with VET providers and in general offer the lowest amounts of credit. In addition, their main source of students is high school.
Also of note is that not all HE institutions will accept a VET qualification at face value; it can depend on the provider that has awarded it. As such, the AQF has some way to go to build trust in the equivalence of VET qualifications from different providers.
The AQF is currently under revision with one of its goals to further address the quality and consistency of qualifications. The revision aims to better align learning outcomes, complexity and volume of learning as a way of ensuring comparability between qualifications within the framework. This may go some way to reconcile the competency-based learning of VET with the knowledge-based learning of HE, and thus may well improve student pathways between the education sectors.
Ron Mazzachi is a Principal Research Consultant at NCVER. Ashlea Bartram is a Graduate Research Officer at NCVER. To be notified of the release of Ron's paper on 'The role of the Australian Qualifications Framework in increasing the overall quality of VET to HE pathways' subscribe to NCVER News http://www.ncver.edu.au/newsevents/subscribe.html.