The Australian Undergraduate Certificate – A new AQF qualification for COVID 19

On 1 May 2020 the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Education & Skills Councils approved a new 6 month higher education qualification under the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) in response to the economic impact of COVID -19. The Undergraduate Certificate (UC) has been approved for a limited time with UC’s able to be awarded from May 2020 until 31 December 2021 by registered higher education providers. A review will be undertaken to assess whether the UC will continue to be awarded beyond this date.

The addition of this new exclusively higher education qualification to the AQF has been spearheaded by the independent higher education sector led by peak body IHEA over the last month. This initiative is part of broader government measures including extending Commonwealth funding to independent providers with FEE-HELP approval offering short courses in national priority areas. It is also consistent with the direction set by the The AQF Review (Noonan) in 2019.

UC can be at AQF 5, 6, or 7

Unlike other qualifications under the AQF, the Undergraduate Certificate (UC) is not located at a single qualification level, but is rather covered at any of Levels 5, 6 or 7. The UC has been conceived as a short award course of 6 months equivalent full-time duration that upon completion allows students the option of an exit point or articulation into an existing qualification located at AQF levels 5, 6, or 7. It is a pre-requisite that the course must articulate at one of these levels. In this sense, the intended learning outcomes achieved by students must align to the relevant outcomes for which the course articulates into at AQF level  5, 6 or 7.

Practically, the UC will be comprised of units already part of an accredited qualification at AQF level 5, 6 or 7 that represents six months of full time study. However, as a stand-alone qualification the design will need to be coherent and align to the AQF specifications for skills, knowledge and application of skills and knowledge as set out in the AQF addendum. Importantly the UC will need to be designed to qualify students with knowledge and skills for further study, professional up-skilling, employment and participation in lifelong learning.

The AQF award received by students would be Undergraduate Certificate (Field of study/discipline)’.

Fields and fee-types

Whilst the initial impetus for this award came from the Commonwealth Government’s COVID-19 sector stimulus package, in particular, the allocation of 20,000 discounted CSP places in national priority areas, the subsequent recognition of the qualification in the AQF means that there is no longer a restriction on the disciplines in which such courses can be offered. A registered provider, subject to the usual accreditation, can offer a UC in any field of education, subject to being able to articulate graduating students into a connected award course at either AQF 5, 6 or 7.

We also understand that the course can qualify in the usual way for HELP loans, with FEE-HELP being the most obvious. It is possible that Commonwealth Supported Places may also be allocated, beyond those offered in the Stimulus Package. The details of the funding arrangements and changes (if any) have not yet been released but it is envisaged that UC places will be managed as part of Table A universities existing allocation for enabling, sub-bachelor and postgraduate CSPs. The current arrangements  allow for internal redistributions with the exception of reallocation of sub-bachelor or postgraduate CSPs to enabling programs. As UC can be located at Level 7 AQF there may be a question as to whether such programs may attract undesignated Commonwealth Supported Places within Table A funded profile.

Subject to appropriate clearances by / notifications to TEQSA, there would also be no restriction in offering this award course online to international students located overseas, or on the ground overseas.

TEQSA Accreditation 

For non-self-accrediting providers, UC’s must be accredited by the national higher education regulator, TEQSA. While there is some indication that TEQSA may have an expedited process for the accreditation process of these qualifications, at the time of writing, no specific advice or guidance has been publicly issued by the regulator.

Of note, and perhaps requiring rapid clarification by TEQSA, are the following key characteristics of the UC:

  • All TEQSA registered providers with an existing AQF 5, 6 or 7 qualification can design a 6  month UC from existing units;
  • The AQF Specification (among others) explicitly includes generic learning outcomes (fundamental skills, people skills, thinking skills and personal skills), the requirement for coherent learning outcomes for the qualification type, and the requirements of the Qualifications Issuance Policy including as to nomenclature. These stipulations will have implications for design of a four subject course.
  • It should be possible for two providers to enter into a pathway agreement whereby Provider A offers the UC course and award, and students can then articulate – with credit – into Provider B’s accredited course located at AQF 5, 6 or 7. The AQF qualification specification does not dictate that the pathway course must be offered by the same provider.
  • While the design of the UC should facilitate articulation and credit into an existing qualification, there does not appear to be any restriction on UC being a stand-alone exit  qualification. Indeed this is desirable.
  • If accredited as such, like all other AQF qualifications, the UC could be delivered onshore, offshore or online, subject to appropriate disclosures to TEQSA;
  • It remains unclear whether on-shore international students will be able to enrol in the new qualification – this will require inclusion in the visa regime, and CRICOS approval of the course by TEQSA.
  • All non-self accrediting providers will need to submit an application for accreditation of the UC to TEQSA for approval before delivery. Given the intention is that the qualification be responsive to the COVID-19 context, and that the course will be based on largely or wholly existing accredited units, it is anticipated that TEQSA will develop a streamlined process for accreditation.
  • Taking into consideration the limited date range for the UC, providers will need to ensure that all students cohorts intended for the UC complete and are issued certification by 31 December 2021. This means that the last cohort will need to commence the 6 months of study by July 1 2021, or potentially later if a trimester or intensive delivery models are being used. An earlier date may need to be set to cater for students not passing subjects and requiring repeats.
  • Clarification about the form of application and processing time for TEQSA accreditation will be critical in determining the value and potential reach of the UC for independent providers relying on TEQSA approval.

Strategic Value and Potential

While technical details still require greater clarification including TEQSA’s role and the potential for the UC to be extended past 2021, the UC signals a potentially more flexible and innovative approach to curriculum design in Australia.

Over the last decade, Australia has struggled to grapple with the how MOOCs, micro-credentials and cross border credit arrangements fit within the parameters of the national qualification framework. The tension between maintaining the reputation of Australia’s higher education sector  internationally through regulatory and accreditation controls and the need to be more responsive to the demand for more flexible, less traditional and more “bite-sized” tailored educational products has not easily been resolved. Unlike other jurisdictions, such as New Zealand that recognise micro-credentials as a formal qualification, Australia has been slow to renovate its qualification architecture to adapt to the changing demand, context and global nature of higher education.

The recent review of the AQF (yet to be implemented) in part sought to address some of these issues by recommending that revisions via the AQF Pathways Policy “to broaden guidelines for credit recognition across AQF qualifications and to define and provide for recognition of shorter form credentials, including micro-credentials, towards AQF qualifications”. However, if successful and adopted as part of Australia’s AQF past 2021, the UC has the potential to provide greater certainty about the status of a shorter, six month course to the market and provide Australian providers more opportunity to be responsive to international trends and demand for recognised short courses that upskill quickly and efficiently without compromising quality.

Offered across the full entry catchment to higher education, AQF 5 (diplomas), AQF 6 (advanced diplomas and associate degrees) and AQF 7 (bachelor), the UC has significant potential:

  • To further extend accessibility for the majority of the population that does not already hold a bachelor degree – this qualification halves the entry hurdle (time and money) of enrolling in a 12 month full-time course;
  • For those that want to ‘try before they buy’ higher education, this qualification allows a more efficient mechanism, with an AQF-recognised exit point’
  • For international students in offshore locations, this short course may help manage significant uncertainty about the date by when students may come to Australia to study – a course that can be commenced offshore online, and then articulate potentially into a diploma if more time is required, and then into an on-shore bachelor program under a student entry visa.
  • In time, it may be that sequences of certificates can be designed, to allow the stack-ability that some market segments want, potentially allowing students to enrol in a series of certificate courses of between 4-to-6 months duration, and taking out a bachelor degree upon sufficient study.
  • To provide a pilot of micro-credentialling within the AQF system.
  • To pilot the use of a qualification type that is more independent of qualification level.

Wells Advisory was advisor to IHEA in advocating this new qualification to the Australian Government.