The central thread in the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report is ‘growth for skills through greater equity’ (pg.1), proposing a major increase in future HE participation and attainment levels (pg. 37) with ~60% of this growth needing to be from equity/regional students (pg.40) to reach their population proportionate share. This is woven with multiple sub strands: ‘universal learner entitlements’ (pg.43); ‘student centred needs-based funding (pg.113); an ‘integrated tertiary system’ (pg.20); ‘progressing the AQF review’ (pg.57) so providing a new scaffold from which existing/new qualifications (pg.10) may be linked; with emphasis on courses aligned to industry/student need (pg.45) and more just-in-time-just-as-needed stackable credentials.
The Interim Report, referencing its echidna imagery, sets out its array of ‘spike’ issues in a logical and lucid pattern, but it falls short on new ‘spikey’ ideas. The many ‘further consideration’ statements (pg.8), which in aggregate may give momentum to ten possible ‘system shifts’ (pg.20), are mostly well trampled ground.
The Final Report will bring fewer, sharper recommendations for Government/Treasury to consider. It is a given from Minister’s statements that outcomes will be underpinned by Government’s clear philosophy to lift HE participation for 1st Nations people, lower socio-economic groups and regional students.
A radically reformed and better integrated tertiary system is foundational to improved productivity
The ambitious ‘big-goal’ of a 55% HE attainment target by 2050 (pg.38) needs to be detailed and better justified, as the Report itself says: “An overall tertiary attainment target is appropriate as both VET and HE will need to play a role in meeting future skills need. A national target could be a mechanism to draw the tertiary system together in pursuit of a common goal” (pg.42).
Making very long-range forecast projections to 2035 and 2050 (pg. 36-37) for HE attainments, based on a retrospective structural view of a separate HE sector, is oddly inconsistent with headlining a future ambition of a more integrated tertiary system and setting tertiary participation/attainment targets (pg. 9).
Critically, if such growth in HE participation/attainment is to reach population parity, on socioeconomic and geographic measures, the preparatory role of schooling, VET and HE enabling studies in ensuring all students are educationally ready to start HE requires a vastly improved performance in these pipeline pathways.
The PC’s review of the past HE demand driven system found growth in student numbers had included many of lesser literacy and numeracy, a predictor of greater student attrition, and a contributor to HE participation gaps between equity and non-equity groups. Norton cautions that for some most disadvantaged students, “universities are, in their admissions practices, already operating at the edge of what is legal and ethical”.
A Bill to improve academic/non-academic student supports at universities is proposed, consistent with the Accord Priority Action 4 (pg.7). This recommends directing resources to ‘wrap around’ support for HE students – a term long owned by VET, long wanting recurrent resources for just such purposes and people.
This is not a VET-sector rant born from ‘HE sector-envy’ – it is a rational economic/social and opportunities costs question about best investment of public funds. Why is investing in extra CSP places to reach 55% HE attainment by 2050 (pg. 37) the preferred policy option, as critiqued by Norton, and if that is the proposal, what investments are to be made in the school/VET/HE enabling/digital capability student pipeline? The Model below only starts to tackle this.
A Model solution – Bolting together multiple Accord ‘Further Consideration’ elements
The Model below follows the policy elements of the prior O’Kane/Twain paper. It is pragmatically cast by asking: “what does it do, what must it do and what else will do” in fashioning a ‘re-build as you fly’ reform.
Core Proposal – A ‘Twain Plan’
A new sector will be established and promoted, called for the sake of a better name, the JET sector (joined education and training), built as a wide highway (not a pathway) between current VET and HE sectors. The past convention of an AQF 5-6 VET/HE ‘overlap’ will be abolished, replaced by JET and founded by default on existing HE policy, but amended to specific purpose. The Model underpins the expected decision to increase HE attainment to 55% by 2050, allowing JET-attainments to be therein counted, per OECD practice (pg. 35).
Federal relations and Constitutional issues
State Ministers must let go of VET at AQF 5-6. VET Dipl./Ad. Dipls. constitute ~15% of all 2022 VET program enrolments and ~10% of government funded. When the Australian Government (AG) first provided loans for VET at AQF 5-6 it was agreed in the VET National Agreement – States did not object. Such loans started as being only for ‘articulation’ of VET to HE. This all fell into the VET FEE HELP failure when fully opened to VET.
JET funding and financing
This would be based on the existing CSP/HELP regime to cover teaching costs. Part of any resources directed at a 55% attainment target would be allocated to JET (and counted as HE). States would not contribute to any loan expenses or debt not expected to be repaid (as with VET Student Loans). If the AG did not want to fully fund the needed CSP (and the student carries more HELP loan), States could provide CSP-supplementary funding, investing in their priority JET courses. Alternately, the AG would retain part of current VET National Agreement funds to help cover JET-CSP costs.
A key new policy decision needs to be made allowing funding/financing of not only full JET courses, but also short or micro-courses offered in JET, and to what limit i.e. if and at what point, should subjects/short courses be only a private tax deductable expense?
Universal learning entitlement (ULE)
Universal implies a full tertiary wingspan – JET would eventually plug into any new ULE. The options and intricacies of ULE applied in a university setting have been detailed by Norton, as well as funding options for institutional allocations and possible moderations for student characteristics. Independent Higher Education Australia lobby for a student-centric model based on life-long access to a mix of public subsidy and loans, redeemable by students at their chosen provider – but don’t call it a voucher.
The VET world experience of ‘entitlements’ is deep and colourful. Once States decided VET entitlements for all students to at least Cert. III were not fundable, a multitude of different refinements were adopted across jurisdictions for optimal use of available public funds: ‘subsidy-levels/caps’; ‘priority courses linked to job needs/skills’; ‘full quals. only or +/- skillsets and subjects’; ‘number of courses/fails’ (student ‘bites at the cherry’); progression up, lateral or down the ‘AQF ladder’ based on prior attainment; access to ‘loans’ (above); or contracts only to quality VET providers. ULE will be tough to agree with a full tertiary wingspan.
JET and the Australian Qualifications Framework
In the AQF Review this space was called the VHET zone and it bundled proposed ‘Advanced Vocational Certificates, Diplomas and Associate-Degrees’. JET will comprise all current AQF 5-6 level qualifications, HE and VET, including the newer Undergraduate Certificate (pg. 55), plus any arising from ‘progressing’ the AQF Review’ (pg.57). Any roll in of Cert. IVs into JET is a far, far bigger ask and must await reform progress.
Things now get more challenging, but there is clear Ministerial leadership, who stated: “improving the integration of HE and VET… includes creating new types of qualifications that combine both”. So how?
JET focussed – educational products, qualifications reform and course accreditation
In JET, the existing VET Dipl./Ad. Dipl. qualifications would be phased out, seeking the advice of the new VET Qualification Reform Design Group. Training Package qualifications at current AQF 5/6 would then no longer have primacy and JET qualifications could be developed/licensed by single or joint HE registered providers. Industry input would be mandated, building on existing structures. Universities have multiple professional course accreditation practices with industry bodies (pg. 45) and would retain self-accreditation in JET.
The new Job Skills Councils (JSC) would provide advice to all JET providers plus give an independent view on course suitability (and identify duplicates) to TEQSA, who would be responsible for course approval for non-self-regulating providers. As is present HE policy, strong providers may ultimately win self-accreditation. The intent is to deliver the next evolution of industry association, course accreditation, ongoing professional development requirements to better address skills gaps, and minimise regulatory requirements.
JET focused – qualifications design, ‘stacking’ and national credit recognition
An independent Expert Group – recruit those who drafted the Australian Microcredentials Framework – must advise on: Guidelines for JET qualifications/short courses reform, detailing structures of hybrid HE/VET courses, re-present Guidelines on how micro credential and short course packaging/stacking/recognition will work when these are aggregated up as new national JET courses, and write nationally applied Guidelines and Rules for cross-tertiary credit recognition of JET qualifications. TEQSA will receive an annual declaration and statistics, legislated if required, that all its regulated institutions operationally comply with national credit recognition requirements. Later the same group could advise on content within any Skills Passport.
JET focused – Institutional structures overseen by one regulator TEQSA
JET sector providers must be one of the existing HE provider types, these including university-subsidiary colleges, most TAFEs and private providers of HE. JET sector providers could work in agreed consortia, like Cooperative Skills Centres (pg. 58) with industry partners and JSCs. These consortia would be funded under an expectation to pursue novel hybrid education/training outcomes, e.g. ‘higher’ apprentices.
Safeguards and risk – integrity/quality
Registration under TEQSA should be sufficient and apply equally to all JET providers. But governments do deal with risk and public accountability. In 2021 only 146 approved VET providers accessed VET Student Loans, supporting ~40,500 students and ~43,500 enrolments. The top 10 courses (of 218 in total supported) accounted for ~50% of enrolments, with Nursing ~40% of the top 10. Without complementary CSP funding, student uptake is skewed and plainly stunted. Policy needs to now step over the old VET FEE HELP saga.
Critics may say all this just moves the VET/HE boundary to Cert IV. Yes, but it removes the odd anomaly of HE/VET AQF overlap. The Model is a calculated trade off in gaining practical reform, needing all players to make friends with new ideas, but not overreaching to get flat out opposition. It is evolvable as reform elements play out (e.g. ULE). Lastly, in ‘rebuild while you fly’ mode, there is little payback for a better integrated tertiary system by meddling with parts way outside the current AQF 5-6 flaw.
This JET Model can all be shot down as dross – fine. But soon all the Accord’s moving jigsaw parts – many labelled ‘vested interest’ underneath – have got to come together as a coherent, stable, integrated master policy with an implementation plan that allows for system continuity amidst reform. The Accord Final Report needs to at least contemplate doable models that integrate the moving parts it has so comprehensively identified. Nor can its recommendations just be shoved to a new Tertiary Commission to be solved later.
So, what of that echidna. As egg laying mammals they have the second lowest body temperature of all mammals, have ‘oh-so-slow’ metabolism, a dawdle speed of 1 and a top of 2.3 km per hr. Much like the woefully ponderous pace and agility of Australia’s tertiary-system policy reforms.