AUSTRALIA: National qualifications frameworks

Local universities will soon have to comply with the Australian qualifications framework. Until now their privilege of self-accreditation and their practically permanently legislated university status have allowed them to ignore the qualifications framework for all but international education. Paradoxically, the weakness of the framework in schools and higher education may be one of the reasons for its relative if modest success.

But tighter regulation of universities' qualifications and standards has become necessary because of the considerable expansion in higher education over the last 15 years and the explosion of domestic private higher education by public universities since the introduction of a postgraduate education loans scheme in 2002, and by private providers since the scheme's extension in 2005.

Australia was one of first generation of national qualifications frameworks, with New Zealand, South Africa, Scotland, and separate frameworks in the rest of Britain. It shares three characteristics with the Scottish credit and qualifications framework, the other relatively but also modestly successful national qualifications framework.

While the Australian framework was formally introduced in 1995, it incorporated qualifications structures and agreements that had been developed separately for senior secondary certificates, vocational education and higher education over the previous two decades. The current framework, like its Scottish counterpart, is effectively a federation of sub frameworks.

Furthermore, the Australian and Scottish frameworks are relatively loose federations, allowing each sector's qualifications to develop in relative isolation from each other notwithstanding their formal location in the same framework. This allowed Australian national and state governments to use the framework in establishing the national training system - one of the major achievements of cooperative federalism in tertiary education since 1995.

Over the same period, Australian governments allowed senior secondary and higher education qualifications to evolve with benign neglect. In contrast to Australia's loose arrangement, the New Zealand government sought to incorporate senior secondary and university qualifications within a more tightly regulated framework which provoked early and largely successful resistance.

Thirdly, even in vocational education Australia's qualifications framework has served a circumscribed if important role within a broader qualifications system that includes quality assurance and mechanisms for assessing, awarding and transferring credit. The South African government and many countries that have developed qualifications frameworks more recently have imposed on them understandable but excessive expectations.

A recent proposal by the Australian Qualifications Framework Council to strengthen the framework follows the Australian and Scottish successful practice of developing and reforming existing structures, rather than trying to build a big new edifice without foundations or on the rubble of recently demolished sub frameworks.

It also astutely develops many of its proposals for Australia from the European qualifications framework. While national frameworks are important in facilitating national markets, post-compulsory education is of course increasingly internationalised. The European qualifications framework is the best developed and strongest regional qualifications framework and is most likely to be the precursor of an international reference for qualifications.

While the Australian qualifications framework can be usefully strengthened, the Australian government's goals for Transforming Australia's higher education system, released with its 2009-10 budget, cannot be achieved without strengthening other parts of the qualifications system.

The Australian Universities' Quality Agency's annual quality forum for 2009, held in Alice Springs last month, was helpful in considering educational standards and assessment in addition to the issues that have long interested quality practitioners. That they have so readily responded to governments' changed priorities suggests that quality practitioners have much to contribute to the work of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency to be established in 2010.

The Australian Learning and Teaching Council is also contributing importantly to Australia's qualifications system. Its discipline networks and curriculum and assessment resources develop expertise, shared understanding and, importantly, trust in learning outcomes.

But currently Australian Learning and Teaching Council grants are available only to Bond University and institutions receiving federal government supported places. If private providers are to be a continuing part of Australian higher education they will have to be included in the conversation somehow.

Since a longstanding goal of the federal and state governments has been to improve the transfer of students and credit from vocational to higher education, trust needs to be built not just within higher education but between vocational and higher education. This is a major gap in Australia's qualifications system which cannot be filled by loading expectations on to the Australian qualifications framework or by imposing on it a regulatory burden which it cannot bear.

Qualifications frameworks are useful for structuring conversations and agreements but the main burden of improving transfer between the sectors must be borne elsewhere in the system.

* Gavin Moodie is a higher education policy analyst at Griffith University in Brisbane. This article first appeared last Wednesday in The Australian Higher Education Section.

Hopefully, the Australian Qualifications Framework will work in establishing national standards and also lay the the groundwork towards compliance to international qualification standards. This way the cost of undertaking internationl accreditation of higher education institutions and even lower-level ones would be cost effective.

Leodegardo M. Pruna