The latest article published in the LH Martin’s series of policy discussion papers on VET issues looks at where the VET and higher education come together: AQF levels 5 and 6.

Written by the recently retired Managing Director of NCVER, Craig Fowler, it explores the tensions and complexities of the qualifications and approaches to provision where VET meets higher education at the Diploma, Advanced Diploma and Associate Degree levels.

What is going on at this boundary?

One significant and recent policy issue was the proposal to remove caps on sub-bachelor degree programs at AQF levels 5 and 6 for universities. While Universities Australia argued that such a policy would be valued by employers and provide an alternative route to bachelor qualifications, TAFE Directors Australia argued that it would be duplicative and lead to a displacement of qualifications delivered by VET at those levels. They argued VET would be outcompeted by the status and independence of universities and by their ‘market power’. As Fowler points out:

“The VET/HE AQF 5/6 qualifications and their ‘boundary’ space presently operate under separate legislative, funding/financing and regulatory regimes, including different accreditation paths for courses and qualifications, and with separate public administrative costs. With regards to Commonwealth support, one program appears dominantly loan based (with uncertain state and territory subsidies), the other dominantly grant based with loan top-up.”

The demise of VET FEE HELP has seen VET numbers at these AQF levels fall by some 25%, while there has been modest growth in numbers on the higher education side. Interestingly, though, HE graduates “tend to see their qualification as less relevant to employment rather than as providing pathways to higher academic learning or other professional pursuits.” On the other hand, VET graduates see their studies as more work related.

What might the future look like?

Fowler points to a couple of the critical reviews going on at present. The first is a review of higher education provider category standards, and this may lead to some rethinking of institutional forms, including what a university actually is. The second is the national review of the AQF, which – as the link shows – we have highlighted in this column before.

Contextual research by Phillips KPA for this AQF review suggests taking a hard look at the positioning and descriptors of levels 5/6 in both the VET and HE sectors. As Phillips KPA noted, ambiguities in having different qualifications on the same level, but also having differentiation in the schemes of student support payments for the same qualification dependent on whether the student was studying at VET or in HE potentially promotes powerful distortions in the marketplace for qualifications. This, they argued, would be a core concern for the AQF. Whatever happens, Fowler suggests there is an urgent need to establish “more coherent and better integrated policies for the tertiary education system, with the present set-up significantly disadvantaging VET.”

Finally, Fowler points to the other significant changes going on, where “there are even greater forces in global evolution in institutional structures and education/training delivery systems, with technology leading and policy lagging.” As he points out:

“Education futurists point to the forthcoming disruptive impact of internet-empowered education interlopers, offering global reach in digital learning and corporate packaging of industry-endorsed ‘just when needed’ learning, including micro-credentials, which are forecast to impact on existing HE and VET providers … Such revolutionary change may not of itself be damaging to the national aspiration of high quality, timely skills formation in the current and future workforce … provided educational offerings such as micro-credentials are supplementary and not alternatives displacing full qualifications.”

In the last issue we looked at how the issue of micro-credentials are being handled in New Zealand, but the issue has also been raised by the Business Council of Australia in another article in this present issue of VDC news.