Over the last two weeks, the words to a certain song have kept going through my head as a number of people have asked me ‘What’s Going On?”  To confirm, these words have not been the lyrics of the title track of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic concept album What’s Going On? which chronicles the journey back into American society of a Vietnam Vet — though the incredulity at the heart of that song does resonate at this time. Rather, I have been channelling the alternative rock band Four Non Blondes.  In 1993 these San Franciscans had an international hit (no 2 in Australia) called ‘What’s Up’ (which was so titled to avoid confusion with Gaye’s song).  Like my colleagues who have reached out to me I have felt like screaming ‘from the top of my lungs … What’s Going On?”.

The reason I have been feeling a ‘little peculiar’ relates to the Commonwealth Government and its recent directives regarding Undergraduate Certificates.  Many will recall in April 2020, with lockdown only a few weeks old, that the then Minister for Education Dan Tehan announced that as an emergency measure the Commonwealth had created a new ‘Higher Education Certificate’ award-of-study to assist Australians impacted by the emergency to retrain for a new future.

Many universities spun on a dime and put these certificates (at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels) in place.  At Macquarie U, as we grappled with the new world of Zoom, we leaned into the task and with the use of our international pathway college we had a range of undergraduate certificates designed, approved and being taught within weeks of the Commonwealth’s decision.  Many institutions only played in the postgraduate space, often retooling existing Graduate Certificates to deliver on the Commonwealth’s intent.

The Commonwealth was insistent at the beginning that the new awards would only be available to students in 2020 and they would need to complete them in December. Enrolments, therefore, needed to be treated accordingly, though later clarification suggested the award could be completed in 2021 if the student commenced in 2020.

Then, in May 2020, the Commonwealth wrote to universities about the new awards and advised of their plans to place the undergraduate award in the Australian Qualifications Framework.  The Department of Education advised:

“This is a welcome development in the context of the development and delivery of short courses, and provides assurance to the higher education sector and students that the Undergraduate Certificate is now a higher education qualification formally recognised under the Australian Qualifications Framework, and able to be accredited by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.”

Two things were interesting about this communication.  First, that despite the move to put the award in the AQF it would be “reviewed” in December 2021 to ensure it remained “fit for purpose.”  Second, the decision and subsequent review sat in the spirit of the new COVID-inspired federalism via the COAG Educational and Skills Ministerial Council.

It was not till September that the new ‘Undergraduate Certificates’ got into the AQF.  By this time, Macquarie U was into its second study period using the undergraduate awards.  In terms of take-up, our results were modest but encouraging.  But perhaps more importantly, with the Undergraduate Certificates now in the AQF, we, as did many other institutions across the sector, started to think about how else these awards could be used to support our mission.  Our assumption was that if an award was in the AQF, we, as a self-accrediting institution, could utilise the new awards beyond the simple and emergency purpose for which the Commonwealth created them.  And the Commonwealth appeared to be giving signals in that direction.  In June last year, then Minister Tehan observed that “short courses” would become a “permanent fixture” of the Australian educational landscape ‘post-pandemic.”

Through the last quarter of 2020 the sector waited for the Commonwealth to tell us what was happening with these new awards.   Despite the fact the awards were in the AQF there remained some confusion about what this actually meant — did it mean we could plan to utilise the new award whether or not it attracted extra funding?  It was VERY late in the day (late October) when the Commonwealth finally decided that it would provide extra support for the new awards and allow the sector to offer places above their CSP cap for 2021.

We were given literally days to pitch to the Commonwealth what new awards we might propose to offer at the UG and PG certificate level and estimate how many students we might attract.   Most institutions did not have time to think seriously in the undergraduate space and because of the lateness of the decision it meant it was going to be a tough ask to sell Undergraduate Certificates to school leavers because they had already finalised their preferences through their local Tertiary Admission Centres.

How the Commonwealth decided who got what remains a mystery.  In some areas, we got fewer places than we asked for and in other areas we got more.  We were provided with no rhyme or reason as to how places were distributed and we were never informed what decision making informed the allocation.

At Macquarie U, the most obvious places to deploy the new undergraduate certificates appeared in the pathway space and in micro-credentials.  Perhaps because we had first delivered the new UG Certs through our pathway college, the immediate usefulness of the awards in this space had become immediately clear.  And so, we reconceptualised our approach to pathway education using undergraduate certificates along with our existing diplomas.

In the micro-credential space, the new UG Certificates can enhance the “stackability” of these new education products. The new UG certificates can provide a bridge from digital badge to an AQF recognised award course of study.  As we have finalised our approach to micro-credentials in 2021, our work has been informed by the premise that the UG certs could sit within this architecture.  Of course this “short course” approach would allow us to build opportunities with industry and demonstrate our engagement with these stakeholders for the National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund.

As 2021 progressed, more ideas emerged on how to use these “short courses.”   At Macquarie U we have been undertaking work around exit awards and the benefit for student and institution in utilising undergraduate certificates in the undergraduate space, in the same way we do in the postgraduate space.  A point well made by a number of stakeholders is that students leave undergraduate study for a range of reasons but at the moment can feel like a failure because they have nothing to show for it.  We have been planning for the undergraduate certificates to be another tool in our exit award shed.

Another utilisation I have heard discussed in the sector was the application of the certificates in the articulation space for international students as we deal with the new COVID normal.  The notion that a student might complete an undergraduate certificate offshore before articulating onshore has been widely considered and other international jurisdictions are looking at similar approaches.  Minister Tudge appeared to offer support to such approaches in February 2021 when he launched the “Study with Australia” initiative.

Today, institutions across the country have continued to add undergraduate certificates to their coursework suites.  Sitting on the academic programmes committee of Open Universities Australia I have seen a range of new undergraduate certificates being offered by OUA partners.  And again, all the indications coming from the Commonwealth were positive.  In the 2021 budget new minister Alan Tudge extended the short courses by providing 5000 places for independent higher education providers — this before we fell back into lockdown in NSW and Victoria.

As part of its COVID response, the Commonwealth created its own “Course Seeker” website.  It should be remembered that originally this decision was conceived as an initiative to help students find these new short courses.  A visit to the site shows that there are over 200 undergraduate certificates on offer.  Alongside some private providers and TAFE New South Wales, 20 Australian universities representing every Australian state offer a range of undergraduate certificates.

As noted, it was the case that in the original May 2020 announcement the Commonwealth said it would “review” undergraduate certificates in December 2021.

Many people, myself included, assumed this would be perfunctory, especially after the Commonwealth went to all the trouble of placing them in the AQF and the various pronouncements of successive ministers especially with regard to micro-credentials and industry partnership in curriculum design.  Why on earth place an award in the AQF and 14 months later rip it out again?

There was general agreement amongst those I talked to that the extra funding would go but that we would be able to utilise the award under or beyond our CSP caps as we saw fit as self-accrediting institutions.  Outside a workshop run by Dandalo Partners for the Department in July 2021, which saw providers note the usefulness of the awards, I am unaware of any other request to report on how the certificates were going and what we thought.  Such silence reinforced thoughts that all was well.

And then, about two weeks, ago troubling emails started to circulate.  We should not be offering undergraduate certificates for new students from 2022.  Indeed, we should not be allowing completions of the award into 2022 because the “review” was yet to be finalised. This despite the fact the Commonwealth’s website is doing just that and institutions already have 2022 offers out for non-HSC school leavers and others seeking early entry.  Why is this happening?

Colleagues are very concerned that the result of this “review” may well be the end of the Undergraduate Certificate.  One argument I have heard is that the states are concerned about the impact of the awards on the VET system.  I have seen no evidence to sustain such a concern and indeed one of the bigger users of the certificates is TAFE New South Wales.

If what is predicted is happening, the implications for the sector are significant and the biggest losers will be students on a number of fronts.  In relation to the Job Ready Graduates agreement, universities were told they needed to do more to ensure student success, yet one way we could do more through a scaffolded and articulating pathway short course is being denied.  The bridge to award courses for micro-credentials is also removed.  A tool to help us get us back on our feet with international students is one we will not use while other nations may.

Students are the biggest losers.  A very useful pathway articulation will now be denied them.  A student who is compelled to leave study for whatever reason will continue to feel like a failure because we can’t offer them an exit award.  The jump from a non-award micro-credential to a short course with an AQF award is bigger than it need be and therefore may discourage many. And what about the student who now has an educational qualification that might go the way of the Dodo?  Might they feel ripped off when these courses had enjoyed such great government support only months before?

And when will the Commonwealth put institutions and continuing and prospective students out of their misery and tell us what’s going on?  December!  So I return to the Four Non Blondes.  While I have not been crying in my bed to get it “out of my head”, I do pray — “oh my God do I pray” —that the sector will be able to “get up that great hill of hope for a destination.”

Sean Brawley is PVC, Programmes and Pathways at Macquarie Unversity


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