Short-course training, often referred to as micro-credentials, is seen as an increasingly important form of training and is widely advocated. So, when we take a hard look at these, what picture emerges?

We mainly think of them skill sets and accredited courses, but Bryan Palmer, the author of this latest NCVER report, points out that there are “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).”

Introducing new terms: ‘subject bundles’ and ‘RTO-student pairs’

Regular readers will be well aware of how often we have banged on about micro-credentials in these pages in the last few years (you can find some of them with a Google search), and most recently about a micro-credentials pilot in South Australia.

Palmer’s paper refers to ‘subject bundles’, which are “the groupings of common subjects taken by students.” He defines them in terms of the ‘bundle’ of subjects undertaken at a single registered training organisation (RTO) at which a student enrols. He terms these as ‘RTO-student pairs’. He found that there were “about 2.6 million students who enrolled in these subject bundles (Our note: that’s nearly 63% of the 4.2 million students captured by the Total VET Students and Courses data!), [and] by comparison … [there were] 76 565 students enrolled in training package skill sets and 93 555 in accredited courses.”

Enrolments were narrowly focused too, with only “601 of around 50 000 bundles accounting for 90% of the RTO-student pairs”, but only 97 subject bundles accounted for 80% of the RTO-student pairs! In addition, a relatively small number of RTOs are involved, with “456 RTOs registering 90% of student activity” and 241 account for 80% of the activity. Most of the activity was undertaken by private (around 75%) or community ed. providers (about 14%). TAFEs had 4.4% and enterprise providers half that again at 2.2%.

The great majority of those students engaged were on a fee-for-service basis (around 93%) and almost all were “comprised of national training package units/subjects (98.3% of all units, and 98.5% of all RTO-student pairs).”

What are they studying?

The first key point is that the student bundles studied change little from year to year. The top student bundles are 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).”

So, “some form of regulation or licensing prompts the majority of the training for these subject bundles,” the report concludes.

But as it also notes:

“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.”

So, this might suggest that the training packages are not identifying and addressing significant training needs as “slightly under 4% of the top 600 subject bundles are recognised as a skill set.” So, “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,” the report says.

How can things be improved?

Mainly, the suggestions the report’s author makes are around the data collected, including who paid the fee for the course (the student, employer or a third party) and what the program’s purpose for enrolling was, such as: was it for skills development or skills maintenance (or skill-refreshing) purposes?

Finally, there is also a technical support document, which you can access here. It’s worth a look too.