Australian universities, TAFEs dish up snack-sized courses

But commentators question legality, terminology and strategic value

May 1, 2020
snack bite-sized
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The pandemic has fostered a plethora of short courses in Australia, as universities and colleges harness new funding opportunities to transform lockdown downtime into a feast of upskilling.

But the online offerings have prompted questions about their legality and concerns about renewed competition between universities and the chronically underfunded vocational education and training (VET) sector.

Federal education minister Dan Tehan said 11 universities so far had accepted his challenge to help Australians “binge on studying”, rolling out at least 64 short online courses in areas aligned with industry needs.

The discounted courses attract commonwealth-supported place (CSP) subsidies and are eligible for government student loans. “Our universities have demonstrated they are innovative, agile institutions capable of developing high-quality courses within a short timeframe,” Mr Tehan said.

“These microcredentials address [the] immediate need to keep our workforce engaged and adding long-term career value. They present the opportunity, on the back of the pandemic, for universities to lead globally with a pivot towards a new shape of higher education for a transformed economy.”

Southern Cross University (SCU) is among the institutions offering the 12-week courses, announcing 13 “higher education certificates” in areas from sport and exercise science to coastal systems engineering and sustainable engineering management.

“The world might have stopped, but your learning doesn’t have to,” SCU’s website proclaims. The 13 courses are badged as “undergraduate certificates” – a credential not recognised in the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) – on the government’s CourseSeeker website, alongside another eight from Western Sydney and Edith Cowan universities.

Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton said the course terminology appeared to conflict with funding legislation, which limited CSPs and loans to credentials listed in the AQF, and regulatory legislation that bans institutions from inaccurately suggesting their courses lead to regulated higher education awards.

Professor Norton said any breach of higher education standards would be minor, inflicting “no obvious detriment” on students. “But this rushed re-purposing of diploma subjects is leading to bad practice in student information,” he blogged, adding that “certificates” were generally associated with VET colleges and professional associations rather than universities.

State VET providers are touting their own pandemic offerings. New South Wales has unveiled 13 free TAFE courses to complement another 21 that it says were fully subscribed with 85,000 enrolments after they were announced in early April.

Tertiary education consultant Claire Field said that while she supported any effort to encourage learning, many of the VET courses were in relatively rudimentary skills like creating spreadsheets – administrative tasks at risk of being automated in the “digital future” predicted by policy leaders.

Ms Field said a raft of strategic VET reviews had spawned a draft skills reform roadmap for the country. “We’ve got all the mechanisms for some serious and well thought through reform, but the short courses and bits and pieces each state and territory is doing aren’t aligned to any of that big picture strategic activity.”

She also questioned whether the short university courses would meet Australia’s needs for “a big economic rebuild once we get through the crisis part of this virus”.

“We’re going to have more unemployed people, [particularly] youth. We need to lift the enrolment funding caps and go back to the demand-driven system. Governments need to help universities adapt to the downturn in international education revenues and transition into the future.”

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