Image of the cover for An analysis of micro-credentials in VET research report

An analysis of 'micro-credentials' in VET

By Bryan Palmer Research report 3 June 2021 978-1-925717-67-9

About

Subjects not part of a nationally recognised course form the single largest component of enrolments in VET. However, little is known about this space. This analytical project looked for patterns amongst these subjects by matching them to students and RTOs. It found that regulation, either explicit or implicit, formed the largest amount of activity in this area. It also found that these subjects were overwhelmingly funded by fee-for-service-activity.

Summary

About the research

Short-course training, often referred to as micro-credentials, is being seen as an increasingly important form of training, particularly as the world comes to terms with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the vocational education and training (VET) sector, training package skill sets and accredited courses are recognised forms of short-course training.

Nevertheless, a surprising amount of other, shorter, non-qualification training occurs in the VET sector, officially known as enrolments in subjects not part of a nationally recognised program (course). This report refers to them as ‘subject bundles’. This is construed in this paper as a student enrolling in a ‘bundle’ of subjects at a single registered training organisation (RTO), termed here ‘RTO-student pairs[1]’. Indeed, in 2019, there were about 2.6 million students who enrolled in these subject bundles, by comparison with 76 565 students enrolled in training package skill sets and 93 555 in accredited courses. But what are they actually training for and why?

This report contributes to the information already available on the largest segment of the VET sector, by analysing these subject bundles and their salient features. We found that engagement in subject bundles was found to be typically short, with bundles of three subjects or fewer accounting for 89.5% of RTO-student pairs. Furthermore, engagement was focused on a small number of bundles (with 601 of around 50 000 bundles accounting for 90% of the RTO-student pairs) and with a relatively small number of RTOs (with 456 RTOs registering 90% of student activity).

Of particular interest is determining the role these subject bundles are fulfilling and, by extension, identifying opportunities to further expand the role of this segment of the VET sector.

Key messages

  • The analysis clearly indicates that subject bundles are mainly concerned with regulation and skills maintenance, either explicitly or implicitly. This activity can be grouped under the broad headings of workplace safety, emergency preparedness and authority to operate.
  • This segment is largely a ‘private’ market — more than 93% of subject bundles were funded on a fee-for-service basis — with relatively little government intervention. The fact that the employer or the individual is prepared to pay for the training in many cases is due to a regulatory requirement, but also implies that the training is seen as having value as a (micro) credential in the marketplace.
  • There is an opportunity for governments to stimulate ‘non-regulatory’ subject-bundle activity focused on emerging/persistent skill needs and on increasing labour market participation.
  • The noticeable differences between the states and territories in subject bundles can be largely attributed to differences in regulatory requirements, funding regimes and the economic structure of the state/territory.

1. The term ‘RTO-student pair’ has been adopted here in instances where a student enrols in a ‘bundle’ of subjects at a single registered training organisation (RTO). Each subject bundle in this analysis relates to an RTO-student pair. Where a student has been enrolled at more than one RTO, we have bundled their subjects for each RTO separately.

Executive summary

In recent years, there has been substantial interest in micro-credentials in post-secondary education. In November 2019, Australian skills ministers agreed to fast-track work exploring micro-credentials in the national vocational education and training (VET) system, with the aim of ensuring that the system responds more effectively to the needs of students and employers (COAG Skills Council 2019). In February 2020, Skills Senior Officials released a discussion paper on micro-credentials, seeking views on how micro-credentials should be defined (Skills Senior Officials 2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic has further focused attention on the role micro-credentials can play in the VET landscape. TAFE Queensland, for example, is offering a range of micro-credentials and skill sets in response to the pandemic, including:

  • COVID safe for dining (micro-credential)
  • COVID safe for beauty therapy, nail salons, tanning, tattoo parlours and spas (micro-credential)
  • Infection control skill set (Retail) (HLTSS00065)
  • Infection control skill set (Food Handling) (HLTSS00066)
  • Infection control skill set (Transport and Logistics) (HLTSS00067).

In the context of this national activity, this paper explores the Total VET Students and Courses data from 2019, collected by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) and released on 17 August 2020 (NCVER 2020a). The data collection is also referred to as total vet activity (TVA).

Focusing on those subjects not studied as part of a nationally recognised program in Australia’s VET system, this paper analyses the groupings of common subjects taken by students, which will, for the purposes of this paper, be called ‘subject bundles’. The term ‘RTO-student pair’ has been adopted here in instances where a student enrols in a ‘bundle’ of subjects at a single registered training organisation (RTO). Each subject bundle in this analysis relates to an RTO-student pair. Where a student has been enrolled at more than one RTO, we have bundled their subjects for each RTO separately.

The intent is to uncover the extent of skill sets or micro-credentials being undertaken by students in 2019, irrespective of whether they were recognised as such by the Australian VET system. Furthermore, this paper groups and analyses these subject bundles by their salient features.

The subject-bundle sector is the largest sector of the VET market in Australia by student engagement. In 2019 more than 2.6 million students engaged with VET by enrolling in subject bundles, representing 62.7% of all students that year (noting that some of these students may be enrolled in programs as well).

The analysis found that their typical engagement was:

  • short, with bundles of three subjects or fewer accounting for 89.5% of RTO-student pairs, and four subjects or fewer accounting for 94.5%
  • focused on a small number of subject bundles (or programs of study), where 97 subject bundles accounted for 80% of the RTO-student pairs, and 601 subject bundles accounted for 90% of the RTO-student pairs
  • on a fee-for-service basis (93.3% of subjects)
  • comprised of national training package units/subjects (98.3% of all units, and 98.5% of all RTO-student pairs)
  • undertaken at a private training provider (74.7% of the RTO-student pairs) or a community education provider (13.9%)
  • with only a relatively small proportion of all RTOs: 241 RTOs account for 80% of students and 456 RTOs account for 90% of students
  • successfully completed by 94.6% of RTO-student pairs.

Based on a comparison of subject bundles in 2018 and 2019, it appears that most of the most popular subject bundles do not change substantially from year to year.

High student engagement in some subject bundles is driven by the regulatory requirements for people to refresh and update their skills from time to time; for example, the largest subject bundle, associated with the provision of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, is only valid for 12 months.

Many of the top subject bundles were mandated and exist to ensure that people:

  • are able to work safely in the workplace (safety)
  • are able to respond to an emergency if necessary (emergency preparedness)
  • who operate certain equipment or work in certain industries where there is the potential risk for harm have the necessary capabilities and authority to do so (authorisation).

In the number of subject bundles delivered in each state, marked state-by-state differences exist. The factors that appear to influence the extent of delivery by state and the subject bundles delivered in those states include the:

  • degree to which state governments directly fund subject-bundle enrolments
  • differences in state government regulatory requirements
  • differences in government funding for mainstream VET
  • differences in the structure of the economy and the labour market in each state.

Notwithstanding the high demand for the top subject bundles as identified in this report, remarkably few of them are actually designated as skill sets in the formal VET system. Only 10% of the top 97 bundles (80% of the RTO-student pairs) were recognised as a training package skill set. Slightly under 4% of the top 600 subject bundles are recognised as a skill set. It can be argued therefore that subject-bundle enrolments represent a more important form of short-form study (or micro-credential) than nationally recognised skill sets.

Nonetheless, with such large numbers studying each of the top subject bundles they are effectively operating as micro-credentials. Many of them are identified in regulatory requirements or industry practices as being essential for working in that sector, their importance further underlined by the large number of them funded through a fee-for-service arrangement.

Areas where TVA data collections could be improved

The findings from the analysis reveal a couple of areas where more information relating to the data would have been useful. As such, senior VET officials could give consideration to two potential improvements to the TVA collection:

  • For those students who are enrolled on a fee-for service basis, the provider could be asked to report who actually paid the fee: whether it was the student, their employer/business, or a third-party agent (such as an employment services provider).

For those students undertaking a VET subject, the collection could capture the purpose for enrolling in the subject: for skills development or skills maintenance (or skill-refreshing) purposes.

Podcast

Vocational Voices Season 6 - Episode 3

The role of micro-credentials in VET

Steve Davis, Simon Walker, Bryan Palmer,  1 June 2021 (30 mins)

Short-course training, often referred to as 'micro-credentials', is seen as an increasingly important form of training, particularly as governments respond to the social and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Steve Davis talks to Bryan Palmer, Private Consultant and author of An analysis of micro-credentials in VET, and Simon Walker, Managing Director, NCVER about the different interpretations and definitions of a micro-credential, why so many students pursue enrolments in subjects not part of a nationally recognised program, and why a majority of activity in this space is privately funded.

The discussion largely draws from An analysis of micro-credentials in VET, published by NCVER on 3 June 2021.

A copy of the transcript for Season 6 Episode 3 is also available.

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