Transcript of Qualification design for the future of VET podcast

13 November 2019

Vocational Voices: Season 3, Episode 3

Qualification design for the future of VET

Peter Noonan: (00:01)
And what we recommended was that a new form of qualification be created in the form of a higher diploma. And that would give a neat sequencing of students being able to, in either the VET or higher ed sectors, move through diplomas, higher diploma, and into some postgraduate diplomas. It also, I think, deals with the problem of the postgraduate diplomas and certificates are often comprised of rebadged undergraduate knowledge because there's not a shorter form qualification immediately below the postgraduate level.

Steve Davis: (00:33)
Hello and welcome to Vocational Voices, the official podcast of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, or NCVER, for short. I'm Steve Davis and today's topic is qualification design. Our vocational voices today are Simon Walker, managing director NCVER; and Peter Noonan, professor of tertiary education at Victoria University's Mitchell Institute. Welcome to you both.

Simon Walker: (01:00)
Hello Steve.

Peter Noonan: (01:00)
Hi Steve.

Steve Davis: (01:02)
Now the final report of the review of the Australian Qualifications Framework, or AQF, was released back on the 24th of October this year, 2019. The AQF is the national policy for regulated qualifications in Australia's education and training system. And Peter, you were the chair of the expert review panel. What had changed internationally and domestically since the last review to warrant a new investigation?

Peter Noonan: (01:31)
Steve, I think the simple answer is that after the AQF was last reviewed, the advisory council overseeing the AQF at the time was abolished and the Commonwealth gave an undertaking that the AQF would be reviewed. And so I think the simple answer is that it was probably being faithful or consistent with that undertaking. Having said that, there had been also a lot of changes, of course, in the labor market, the impact of artificial intelligence and digital technology has really accelerated.

Peter Noonan: (02:11)
There's been a lot of discussion about the purposes of senior secondary school, major changes in the labor market and also the rise of what's been commonly referred to as micro-credentials, or shorter form credentials, and a lot more interest in the use of those. So for a whole range of reasons, I think the government felt that it was time that the framework, as a whole, be comprehensively reviewed.

Steve Davis: (02:39)
And were there also some changes internationally as far as frameworks are concerned?

Peter Noonan: (02:43)
Look, not particularly. I think most of the qualification frameworks are always going through a process of evolution. I think it's pretty clear that the European ECF, the credit and qualifications framework in Europe, is getting a lot more traction and interest and certainly even within the United Kingdom, for example, with Scotland, Wales, Ireland, UK, all having their own frameworks, it's been a major project to better align them.

Peter Noonan: (03:20)
And a similar project amongst Oceania countries in Australia, so there's probably been quite a lot of focus on regional development. I'm not convinced myself looking at the different frameworks that they've changed that much in themselves. Although, New Zealand had also began the process of looking at dealing with micro-credentials.

Steve Davis: (03:46)
All right. We'll come to some of those topics shortly, but the review report, the final report was released back on October 24, as I mentioned. When will the government consider the findings from your panel?

Peter Noonan: (03:58)
I can't give you a precise answer on that, Steve, because having handed the report over to the two ministers, to minister's Cash and Tehan. One in relation to the skill sector, the VET sector, and the other in relation to schools and senior secondary and higher education. Both the education COAG councils and the COAG skills council will need to formally consider the report, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Peter Noonan: (04:30)
But you'd probably be aware that in the skill space is a very big process of reform going on through the council of Australian governments more generally. And I would think that consideration of the AQF would also have to fit in with the broader approach to reforming the VET system, rather than being looked at separately. I mean, I think we should know by the end of the year, whether the councils, have considered it by the end of the year, or at meetings early next year. But now that we've handed the report in, I'm no longer involved, so I can't give you an informed answer.

Steve Davis: (05:09)
All right, well let's sift through just some of the main themes that are covered in the report and one of those areas, it's very topical in VET circles, is micro-credentials. Peter, what definition did the review panel use for micro-credentials?

Peter Noonan: (05:26)
In the final report we had commissioned some advice from Professor Beverley Oliver, who's ex-Deakin University, has done a lot of work in the space and the definition she used, which we adopted in the final report, was credentials or qualifications that are additional, alternative, complementary, or part of formal AQF qualifications, and our interest was essentially in the ones that are complimentary to the AQF or are part of the AQF.

Peter Noonan: (05:57)
What I mean by that is where an institution or an industry or a group of providers take an existing longer for the accredited AQF credential and break it off, break it up or break bits of it up and offer it as a shorter course offering, or where you've got an external non AQF qualification, which someone wants to recognise or count towards an AQF qualification.

Peter Noonan: (06:26)
Now, of course, that could occur through credit arrangements, but a lot of institutions are looking for something far more systematic and visible on that so that it's quite automatic that if you complete this micro-credential it will be counted as part of your qualification. I would say one thing, Steve. There's been a lot of enthusiasm about micro-credentials.

Peter Noonan: (06:50)
I'd really point out that they've been around for decades and those who spent any time in the TAFE sector would well and truly understand the whole raft of short courses and evening courses that have been run in TAFE and in Melbourne, for example, in the Council of Adult Education for decades and decades. And then within universities, centres for continuing education, as well, would often run shorter and longer form non-accredited courses.

Peter Noonan: (07:21)
And there's a whole range of industry certified training, IT management training and so on. So it's not as if the issue of shorter form and micro-credentials hasn't been around. It has been around for a long time. I think the renewed interest is in its relationship to the AQF and that's how we got involved.

Peter Noonan: (07:42)
What we weren't inclined to do was to open the AQF up to recognising individual shorter form credentials, micro-credentials in their own right, because it could potentially be hundreds of them and the quality assurance that administered processes in doing that would probably frankly kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

Steve Davis: (08:02)
I still want to dive into a little bit more on that topic. Before I do, Simon, just to give us a sense of context and scale here, NCVER has data on participation. Is there a clear view of participants undertaking micro-credentials and whether demand is growing or diminishing?

Simon Walker: (08:23)
Well, the first thing I'd say is there is not a clear view of that. However, we do have data. A couple of things to say about that, up front. One is, we have only had data of the entire VET sector for about five years, so the four years from 2015 to 2018, so that's fairly recent. And secondly, we only report nationally recognised data.

Simon Walker: (08:46)
So, Peter just referred to quality assurance and all the forms that short-form credentials could take. So we only take the ones that are reported to us as nationally recognised, or some people use the term accredited. But within that scope, there are two primary forms, if you like, of micro-credentials. And in Peter's report he refers to training package skill sets and accredited courses, which are just short-form courses.

Simon Walker: (09:19)
If we look at them, there's been a rise of around 30 odd percent in the last four years, but they are very small numbers. So even last year, 2018, there were about 200,000 students participating and that's out of a total of 4 million students participating. So, that's one issue. And that, of course, is what people report to us as a training package skill set or an accredited course.

Simon Walker: (09:45)
There are another two and a half million student enrolments in subjects that are nationally recognised. And we've had a bit of a look at that and we found that in fact a lot of them are skill sets, but it isn't reported that way. So it depends how you want to conceive of this. But if we accept a very broad view of what a micro-credential is, which is any unit or combination of units that aren't a qualification, then you would end up with well over two and a half million students participating in one fashion or another.

Simon Walker: (10:19)
I think the trick in this conception though is what do we mean by credential, and that, in the case of vocational education, is what we call a statement of attainment that just says, "Here is something that outlines the units that you have done and if people want to recognise that as being a skill set or a short course or a micro-credential, well knock yourself out".

Steve Davis: (10:42)
Peter, from where you sit, should the framework be flexible? How flexible, really, should it be in relation to these micro-credentials?

Peter Noonan: (10:52)
Well, it can't be too flexible, Steve. In that what we said in the report is that there will actually need to be some guidance and advice. We're not seeking in our report to recommend that it all be heavily regulated, and we certainly think the recommendations we've made, in terms of having fewer bands or levels and applying them more flexibly, will help with micro-credentials.

Peter Noonan: (11:25)
But there does need to be clear rules and guidance around that because, for example, if three or four institutions take exactly the same micro-credential and give it a completely different level of credit recognition, not only in the amount of credit, but the level of credit, band four as opposed to band five, then that will very quickly undermine the integrity of the whole system because industry, individual students, and the other providers, the industry people involved in the development of micro-credentials, will say, "Well, how can this be? How can you have such an inconsistent outcome?", and the risk then is that both the VET and higher ed standards bodies and regulators will be asked to intervene to try and bring some order and regularity to it.

Peter Noonan: (12:14)
Then I think that would be precisely the wrong way to do it. When governments have to react to poor or inconsistent practice, they generally get it wrong because they're trying to shut the gate after the horse has bolted. So I think that a lot of the way forward in this is very much in the hands of providers and institutions to behave sensibly and ethically in what they do and to not try and gain or seek rapid market advantage through micro-credentials, because if they do, particularly if they try to do it using the AQF, then they risk kind of bringing the whole deck of cards down.

Steve Davis: (13:00)
Look, there's also quite a bit of discussion in the report about general capabilities. Most stakeholders thought the AQF should list some general capabilities while being careful not to make the list too big or rigid. But I also note La Trobe University cautioned that some general capabilities are developed differently and applied in different ways according to discipline, and therefore they're not suitable for broad level qualifications description for assessment, for reporting. And I see that along with language and literacy and numeracy skills and the core work skills, digital literacy gets a mention here. So if I can turn to that, how would digital skills be captured in AQF taxonomy?

Peter Noonan: (13:47)
Well, it wouldn't actually be in the taxonomy. Now, I'm going to get a bit technical here, so the AQF has got a taxonomy of different levels of knowledge and skills and the application of skills and knowledge and we've recommended some pretty substantial changes to those. The point about a taxonomy is that it's based on increasing levels of complexity of learning and complexity of knowledge, or complexity of skills. We certainly think that digital literacy should be generally referenced in part of the AQF and defined.

Peter Noonan: (14:21)
But to give you a very practical example, if, for example, at the current level three in the AQF or level four, you had a certificate in cyber security or gaming or a very strongly IT related qualification and you had a PhD in ancient Greek which would be at level 10, one at level two or one at level four, where would the greater level of complexity of digital literacy sit? Well it would sit in the level four qualification. Not at the level 10 qualification.

Peter Noonan: (14:58)
So in the report we say that there are some general capabilities that should just be generally referenced and defined and they should be then imported into qualifications as appropriate according to the level and purpose of the qualification. Others and ones that, in the draft descriptors that the Australian Council of Educational Research work with us on can be described more by way of a learning progression. So I think literacy can far more easily be described taxonomically, that is with increasing levels of complexity. So general capabilities would sit in two ways in the AQF.

Peter Noonan: (15:38)
The other thing, Steve, is that the panel was very not attracted to the idea of sticking into the AQF some of the capabilities that people are talking about or running with quite strongly. So things like resilience, or emotional intelligence, or a global mindset, and things like that. All of which might be important in their own way for individuals offered for particular qualifications, but they're often highly subjective and capable of changing in meaning and interpretation. And if they get hardwired into the AQF, the implication is they've got be not only taught and learned, but they've got to be assessed.

Peter Noonan: (16:22)
Personally, I think we've got to be very careful about what we say we're hard wiring into our requirements of qualifications when it starts to relate to the aptitudes and capabilities and personalities of individual people because we don't want to be in a position where we're in effect making personality judgments in the process of looking at, at least, the qualification types. Now, that's not to say that you shouldn't look at personality issues in relation to particular qualifications, such as people who are training to be doctors or nurses, where a higher degree of empathy might be required, but let's not hard wire all those things into every qualification across the entire AQF.

Steve Davis: (17:08)
As a lay person sitting here listening to you share that, I would have given up much earlier on general capabilities of trying to find any way of categorising or defining them or finding a place for them. The nuances seem manifold.

Peter Noonan: (17:24)
Look, I think there is no harm in... and particularly, if the list isn't too long and it does emphasise some important capabilities, that digital literacy would be one I have got no problem with. We also referenced ethical decision making or ethical behavior. That wasn't a recommendation that came from the ACER. Yeah, but it's already there in a number of discipline outcome areas.

Peter Noonan: (17:56)
For example, in law, where statements about the kind of people we want in the work that the general capabilities and skills and aptitudes and behaviours that are, essentially, in the modern workforce, I don't have any problem. As long as they're only listed as general references, which should then be carried through into individual qualifications and then assessed accordingly.

Peter Noonan: (18:24)
So if you took ethical behaviour, for example, all that a university or TAFE could do would be to say that in the process of completing the qualification, they observed all the ethical behavioural and ethical knowledge requirements to complete the qualification. That's not to say they're necessarily an ethical person. That's a different question. And that's why I think we've got to be very careful about what it is we're saying that the education system is certifying.

Peter Noonan: (18:54)
Similarly, with resilience. Resilience changes a lot. It's very context specific. And for somebody who's not terribly resilient, it may be due to some terrible home circumstances. And the question I always ask in relation to the resilience measure is, "Are you really going to fail somebody because somebody judges them to not be resilient?".

Steve Davis: (19:17)
We know learning can flow from VET to higher education and higher education to VET, as well as between the school sector and the tertiary education and training. So what did the report have to say about pathways policy?

Peter Noonan: (19:32)
Look, the pathways policy in itself isn't a bad policy. In the current AQF, it's a bit limited and a bit short. We had a separate report commissioned by Dandolo Partners, a good report, which looked at, in practice, what's going on in both VET and in higher education. And while people were generally aware of the policy, it doesn't seem to have a lot of effect on provider behaviour. Now I think that's for two reasons. One is, it's not terribly well reflected in the overarching RTO standards or the higher education standards in both sectors.

Peter Noonan: (20:11)
It just sort of sits apart. And secondly, it's clear that credit and pathways are essentially driven by the strategic intentions and the positioning of individual institutions, particularly universities. And it's always going to be difficult to overcome that. Particularly, we know that high demand higher education courses are always going to be less likely to give students credit even if notionally they should be entitled to it.

Peter Noonan: (20:41)
What we were saying was that the policy needed to be refreshed and reframed, but that's why we think that the testing, the development of the feasibility, a prototype credit points system is worth considering as well because that would give individuals a much clearer sense of at least what notional credit value they have achieved when they've completed courses of study, or, more importantly, part of a course of study. It doesn't help, of course, for students who are just applying for RPL based on their own personal experience. Our credit points system can really only work with accredited courses.

Steve Davis: (21:19)
If I can just pick up on that then. What are the proposed new qualification types or classification of VET qualifications that are contained in the report?

Peter Noonan: (21:28)
Well, we've given two options, Steve. And again we've emphasised that this needs to be considered along with the broader recommendations from the Joyce review into VET, which occurred in parallel, and I should hasten to add I'm now on the expert skills panel for those reforms as well. What we recommended in moving to fewer bands was that one of the options would see fewer bands in the qualifications delivered only by VET.

Peter Noonan: (22:03)
That is, in what are currently the certificate level qualifications. And we suggest that those be given more meaning by talking about them as vocational certificates, or advanced vocational certificates, or foundation basic vocational certificates rather than just reflecting and being some sort of hierarchical numerical order.

Peter Noonan: (22:25)
And we were also keen to much more clearly differentiate the current diploma and advanced diploma, which is offered in both VET and higher ed. At the moment, all of the feedback, and if you look at the descriptors for the advanced diplomas and diplomas, they're almost indistinguishable. By having fewer bands, you can actually more easily distinguish between qualifications, and what we recommended was that a new form of qualification be created in the form of a higher diploma, which could sit alongside with similar skills and knowledge requirements to a degree.

Peter Noonan: (23:03)
But a shorter form qualification could probably be also nested directly into a degree as well and that would give a neat sequencing of students being able to, in either the VET or higher ed sectors, move through diplomas, a higher diploma and into postgraduate certificates and postgraduate diplomas. It also, I think, deals with the problem that's often reported, which is that postgraduate diplomas and certificates are too often comprised of rebadged undergraduate knowledge because there's not a shorter form qualification available immediately below postgraduate level.

Peter Noonan: (23:47)
Now, I hasten to emphasise that we've been very careful about putting those proposals forward merely as ideas because at the end of the day, as I've said, how they're considered, and they will have to be considered along with the VET sector, at least, the broader set of VET reforms coming out with the Joyce review.

Peter Noonan: (24:08)
They can't be considered in isolation of that, but the panel felt that it would give those VET qualifications a much clearer sense of their purpose and a much clearer relationship between them rather than just calling them one, two, three, four, which is the nomenclature that's been around now for about 25 years or longer.

Steve Davis: (24:29)
The concept strikes me as one as being complimentary to the current status quo as opposed to being disruptive. Have you had any feedback? I know the government still hasn't considered this, but have you had any feedback yourself on this aspect of the report?

Peter Noonan: (24:43)
It would require quite a few administrative changes and we're not underestimating the effect of that. And in the industrial relations space, a number of awards, and VISAs and things, all sorts of... I mean, the AQF's now referenced in something like 54 other pieces of legislation and awards. So if you change some of the qualification types, there's a knock on effect then of them having to be changed.

Peter Noonan: (25:14)
And in the case of industrial relations, realigned. Now, the panel's view, and we've had people on the panel who are very experienced in this whole question of the alignment between industrial awards and AQF qualifications, is with good faith on the side of both of the industry parties, and grandfathering, and transitional provisions. That should not be an insurmountable problem. But we're also not underestimating the degree of complexity that that involves.

Peter Noonan: (25:44)
And for Simon and his colleagues at NCVER, of course, it would involve some pretty substantial changes to the statistical collections and the time series that that reflects. Steve, the approach I took in the review thought was the fact that the AQF in its current form is widely-used doesn't mean that it can't be changed because there is complexities involved in changing it. As I've seen in a number of the presentations, I'm not terribly attracted to the "computer says no" approach to public policy reform.

Simon Walker: (26:18)
Peter makes an important point that you don't stop change just because it might be a bit hard to retrospectively fit this thing. And whilst it does raise a few alarm bells, if we had to have a radical change in nomenclature and classification, if it's a sensible thing to do, then we have to do it. So I support Peter's view there.

Steve Davis: (26:38)
Yes, Minister. Professor Peter Noonan, Simon Walker. Thank you very much.

Simon Walker: (26:44)
Thank you.

Steve Davis: (26:46)
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