Supporting learning imaginings

Post-secondary learning

26 April 2019

Imagine no barriers to learning
From birth until you die
No false sectorial dichotomies
Capacity to apply

Imagine all the people
Learning everyday

Imagine governments working together
Enabling what you do
Assuring the quality of offerings
Lifelong learning journeys so smooth

Imagine all the people
Learning what and where they choose

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I am not the only one
I hope today you will join me
Advocating change for futures already come

Maybe I am a dreamer.  Dreaming is one of the joys of independence and working for myself.  Freedom to write silly songs!  To let my imaginings run wild, unconstrained by perceived barriers or politics.  Which I argue is important.  Unless big ideas are set free, how else can policies be shaped that step us along pathways to desired destinations previously thought impossible?

This is the first of two imaginings on governments’ (yes, ‘governments’ plural) roles in supporting learning.  The focus here is on post-secondary learning.  The focus of the second will be on school funding.

Where post-secondary learning is concerned, as the song says, I am not the only one dreaming.  It has been the focus of an increasing number of imaginings and conceptualisations for over a decade now, and doubtlessly before.  In 2008 the authors of what is known in education circles as the Bradley Review dared to imagine that:

“What is needed is not two sectors configured as at present, but a continuum of tertiary skills provision primarily funded by a single level of government and nationally regulated, which delivers skills development in ways that are efficient, fit for purpose and meet the needs of individuals and the economy.”

Since then, academic, expert and business commentators have shared variations on this dream.  In 2014, Victoria University Vice Chancellor and Mitchell Institute author, Professor Peter Dawkins, called for a reconceptualisation of tertiary education and “federal‐state negotiation to achieve a more coherent approach to funding tertiary education students, which in turn supports a more coherent tertiary system.”  In 2017, on Professor Davis’ list of policy reforms, shared in his reflections on the Australian idea of a university, was “a national framework [that] must embrace the entirety of post-school education” where learners “move seamlessly through different modes of institution” and where there is “one set of rules to accredit institutions, assure quality and fund students.” 

Just last year two further significant contributions were released within cooee of each other.  KPMG reimagined tertiary education – from a binary system to an ecosystem – with a revised Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) sitting at its centre.  It called for a single tertiary funding framework for all levels of qualifications recognised under the AQF.  And it encouraged a continuation of efforts to integrate the operations of post-secondary regulatory bodies - the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Authority (TEQSA).  The other contribution was the Business Council of Australia’s blueprint to future-proof the post-secondary education and skills system “that has at its centre a learner and employer focus and a culture of lifelong learning …. built through an entitlement for all Australians to skill and knowledge development throughout their working lives”, enabled by an envelope of grants and loans accessible over time.

These are great dreams.  They have added colour to, and inspired the possibilities in, my own.  I suspect I am safe in predicting that there will be others shared in the lead up to the Federal election.  Particularly as one major party has seeded the potential for further reform by commencing a review of the AQF during its term.  And the other has committed to a National Review of Tertiary Education.  In other words, regardless of whichever party wins the election, it will inherit the foundations, and have a mandate, for meaningful reform.  Which is why I am unashamedly sharing my dreams now.

My only issue with the dreams of late is that they do not go nearly far enough.  Most have been triggered by the appeal of a more sector neutral approach to governments’ roles in vocational and higher education.  Currently learners encounter difficulties when moving between the two sectors, despite overlapping levels in qualification types.  The dreams are of more seamless transition.  Of fairness in the reach and application of governments’ support.  And of a regulatory approach that ensures the quality of offerings, regardless of whether they fall within the remit of vocational or higher education.

As I said, great dreams.  But I dare to dream bigger.  Imagine a future where adults over their lifetimes choose their learning journeys, moving seamlessly between the accredited offerings of traditional and non-traditional providers.  Where what is on offer includes familiar qualifications and alternative and shorter form credentials.  Where credentials can stand alone, supplement or ‘stack’ towards larger qualifications.  And where learners have agency over their credentials stored on the blockchain, and if and how they are shared as verified evidence of their capabilities capabilities via digital passports or ePortfolios.  In this dream the roles played by governments are as enablers – supporting access and choice – and assurers – of the level, equivalency and quality of offerings.

Some might dismiss this as not a dream, but a pipe dream.  They might argue that the friction caused by current arrangements will seem negligible compared to the crags and snags of rocky learning pathways lined by traditional and non-traditional providers.

Somewhat true.  But that does not mean that it must be.  Or, more to the point: it should not be.  The world of work is changing.  Learners are changing.  Credentialing is changing.  Change abounds, irrespective of the roles played by governments.  And it will pass them by, if they are asleep at the wheel.  The challenge is for governments to facilitate change for good, and not be friction in the wheels of change. 

Unconvinced?  The following provides a flavour of futures already here.  It then moves on to prescribe the governance, regulatory and funding arrangements necessary to facilitate change for good.

Futures already here

Work is transforming at rates greater than we have ever seen before and smaller than we will ever see again.  Learners’ appetites and expectations are changing in ways that sometimes can make large servings of learnings too long and difficult to digest.  Alternative and shorter form credentials for hard and soft skills are increasingly being offered by traditional and non-traditional providers.  These are the much talked about futures already here.

 

Future of work

 

Globalisation, new technologies and ways of doing things are making some jobs redundant, diminishing others, changing many, and enabling the creation of new roles, most impossible to predict with foresight.  The pie chart below is from the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Survey, which captures the views of human resource leaders in large multinational corporations from across the globe.  It shows that in a mere four years ‘new roles’ will expand from less than a sixth to over a quarter of all roles.

Furthermore, so called ‘stable roles’ will be anything but ‘stable’.  While position titles may remain the same, expectations do not.  For instance, just as advances in data analytics underpin the rapidly emerging new role of data scientist, it has become a critical element of existing roles, such as marketing professionals and financial analysts.  Indeed, one estimate is that two thirds of hiring for data analytical skills will be in existing jobs.

 

In this context, what matters most to employers are individuals with transferable skills.  The top five that the Future of Jobs Survey foretells will be in demand across the globe in 2022 are analytical thinking and innovation, active learning and learning strategies, creativity, originality and initiative, technology design and programming, and critical thinking and analysis.  In other words, a mix of soft skills (such as analytical thinking) and future-focused hard skills (such as technological design) that are transferable from one role to another.

 

These are often not possible for employers to surmise from traditional transcripts.  And they may have developed in the workplace, rather than on campus.  The challenge for applicants and employers alike is verified evidence that they exist. 

 

Future learners

 

It is not just jobs that are coming, going and morphing at accelerating rates.  People are changing roles and careers at great frequencies.  Official estimates are that last year over one million Australians changed jobs and near on half a million moved to a different industry or career.  New entrants may start in narrowly defined fields, then use, extend and supplement their hard and soft skills in a variety of roles and via learning opportunities throughout their working lives.

Today’s young professionals are not merely interested in lifelong learning, they seek ‘life-wide’ learning – acquiring skills that are transferrable across diverse roles and multiple careers.

A Deloitte commissioned survey asked 4000 Australian workers aged 18 and over about their learning preferences.  Selective findings pertaining to study-interested workers were that:

 

  • they prioritise job-specific learning, with more than two thirds (68 percent) placing more importance on skills-based training over formal qualifications;

  • a significant share (30 percent) were doing non-AQF qualifications, including pursuing professional accreditation, informal credential training, individual units of study and informal non-credentialed learning; and

  • the most popular option for study arrangements was a series of bite sized courses, with close to a third (30 percent) indicating their preference for this.

 

Examined together, these findings indicate a strong preference for work-relevant, continuous, bite-sized learning that helps balance learning, working and other life priorities.  They also suggest the lack of independent verification of the level, equivalency and quality of a large share of workers’ learnings.  This becomes problematic if they wish to signal the standalone and cumulative value of their skills.  Segue to the future of credentialing.

 

Future of credentialing

 

Historically familiar post-secondary options are where learners study with accredited education institutions towards broad qualifications that take a long time to achieve, such as Bachelor degrees at universities.  This is depicted in the bottom left-hand corner of the schematic below.  An equivalent schematic could be drawn for vocational education.

While there is no suggestion that this world will not continue to persist, a new world is emerging that co-exists and interacts with the old.  This is depicted in the top right-hand corner.  The curriculum is being unbundled – separating out hard and soft skills, both discipline-specific and transferable.  Alternative and shorter form credentials are being offered by traditional and non-traditional providers (including employers, industry and professional bodies and others), sometimes in partnership.  They recognise attainment, either through engagement in learning experiences and/or assessment, increasingly of skills learned in other settings, such as workplaces.  They are being accumulated and ‘stacked’ to form clusters of complementary skillsets and, in some cases, full qualifications.  In a small but growing number of instances, they are being stored and traded on the blockchain.   They feature in digital passports and ePortfolios, presented to employers as evidence of applicants’ capabilities.

This is not an original take on where credentialing is heading.  This is the future already here which is highly visible in some jurisdictions, such as the United States.  It is not dissimilar to two separately conceived scenarios of education in 2030, by EY and HolonIQ

This new world, aligned to both the preferences of learners and demands of employers, sits largely outside of the scope of government influence.  Many will, and do, argue that this is a good thing, as it avoids being stifled by regulation.  Good point.  But it misses the bigger point about the roles governments could play in enabling the access and choice of learners, and assuring the level, equivalency and quality of offerings.

 

 

Governments working together supporting change

 

At risk of oversimplifying the complexities of the roles that governments currently play in post-secondary education, under current arrangements:

 

  • their oversight is limited to qualifications defined within a national framework - the AQF;

  • there is one national regulator for higher education (TEQSA), and another for vocational education and training (ASQA), which two states (Western Australia and Victoria) elect to sit outside of;

  • the Commonwealth Government subsidises the tuition costs of a fixed number of places for first time students in eligible higher education programmes (typically Bachelor degrees), while state governments either fully or partially subsidise or provide no subsidy for vocational courses under regimes that differ from state-to-state; and

  • income contingent loans can be accessed by students studying towards higher education qualifications and, on less generous terms, by students studying diploma level and above vocational courses.

In other words:

  • alternative and shorter form credentials are not recognised;

  • there is little to verify the learnings and capabilities of students who complete some but not all courses within a program (which is too often negatively referred to as ‘dropping out’);

  • differences in regulatory approaches create friction for mobile learners, a regulatory burden for providers and, as a consequence, a barrier to pathways and dual-sector offerings;

  • there is no state or national regulator to assure the level, equivalency or quality of alternative and shorter form credentials and thereby facilitate their liquidity and potential to provide pathways;

  • financial support is biased towards higher education and is not transferable between the two sectors; and

  • there is no financial encouragement for providers offering alternative and shorter form credentials, learners interested only in bite-sized offerings, and/or learners seeking to continue and extend their learnings over the course of their working lives.

I could go on.  But I think (hope!) you get the gist.

So how should governments support my dream world of post-secondary learning?  What should governance, regulatory and funding arrangements look like if they are to facilitate change for good?

Governance

To effect real change will require Commonwealth and state governments to rise above parochial politics and act as one to support all post-secondary learners.  Governance of post-secondary learning that is neutral regarding credential length, sector or state, necessitates a singular approach.  Differences create friction and have no place in an environment where learning is continuous, and learners and workers are mobile. 

A singular approach to governance will either require state governments to cede powers to the Commonwealth for all post-secondary learning, or a truly national approach where governments work together.  There are pros and cons associated with either option.  There is not the space, and nor is this the place. to debate them here.  These discussions need to commence with urgency post-election in Commonwealth-State settings.

Regulation

Two major changes are prescribed here: extending the AQF to alternative and shorter form credentials, and moving to one national regulator of all forms of post-secondary credentials seeking accreditation, whether short or long.

In the 2017-18 Budget, the Commonwealth Government announced a review of the AQF, to ensure the framework meets the needs of learners, employers, providers and the wider community.  That review is currently underway, and on the table for consideration is if and how shorter form credentials should be brought within the framework.  There is no prize for guessing my position on the first consideration given the discussion up to this point.  Traditional and non-traditional providers should have the option of seeking accreditation of their credentialed offerings - independent verification of credentials’ level, equivalency and quality.  This is necessary to provide all – learners, employers and providers – with confidence in their veracity, and facilitate their liquidity as micro-credentials are stacked to form mesa-credentials and full qualifications.  In other words, extending the AQF to shorter form credentials is essential for recognition and addressing current failings in the credentials market.

The ‘how’ question is a lot more complex and tricky.  While I am not short of views on this front, I will spare you the lecture.  Nonetheless, this is where the AQF Review Panel needs to be focusing its efforts, as the ‘if’ question is a no brainer.

So on to my second prescribed reform: there should be a single national regulator of all forms of post-secondary credentials seeking accreditation, whether short or long.  The words ‘seeking accreditation’ are deliberate and I will shortly say why.  But first the reasons why one national regulator is prescribed.  It ensures regulatory oversight is extended to shorter form credentials.  It is necessary to minimise friction between all credential types – full higher and vocational education qualifications and shorter form credentials offered through these and non-traditional providers.  And it enables even-handed regulatory enforcement, as opposed to differences in the approaches and expectations of TEQSA and ASQA, which have attracted no end of media attention.

Its biggest drawback is the perceived size of the task.  It may cause many to too readily dispose of this reform idea in the too hard basket.  Which brings me to the relevancy of the words ‘seeking accreditation’.  Not all short courses include assessment that results in a credential other than a certificate of completion.  Not all offerings are designed with the possibility of pathways to further learning in mind.  As such, not all shorter form offerings will wish to be brought under the AQF umbrella.  Seeking accreditation by a national regulator should be optional. 

Further, current regulatory practices should not constrain future practices.  Particularly if they can introduce efficiencies, without compromising on quality.  For instance, just as reputable universities are given license to self-accredit their offerings, what about reputable training providers, employers or other bodies?  If they can tick all the same boxes, why shouldn’t the IBMs of this world be able to self-accredit their IT credentials?  Or a professional body, self-accredit its pathways and destinations?

Funding

The futures of work, learners and credentialing demands a new approach to governments providing financial support for learning throughout life.  It is not sufficient to tweak current arrangements, no matter how hard governments pinch or twist them.  Bold, holistic reform is called for. 

Sector neutral arrangements lack ambition as they only address historical anomalies without an eye to emerging anomalies implicit in the futures just described.  Funding support needs to be credential neutral, so long as credentials are recognised under the AQF.  They should not distort learners’ choices on grounds other than quality.

Governments' funding should support lifelong and life-wide learning.  This could be enabled by a fixed envelope of subsidies that learners can access over their lifetimes to contribute towards the costs of acquiring AQF recognised credentials.  The size of the envelop could vary dependent on the socio-economic status (SES) of households: larger for low SES households, smaller for high.  It could also allow for entitlements to be transferrable amongst eligible household recipients, and thereby align to where need within households is greatest.  Credit goes to Eveline Jona, Monash academic and President of the Victorian Parents Council, for this innovative idea.

 

Income contingent loans up to a cap could be available to learners studying towards credentials assessed at AQF level 5 and above.  The rationale behind this threshold is the greater return that can reasonably be expected from higher level credentials.

A parting yet important thought under this header is that Governments could and should also do more to support parents and caregivers save towards the post-secondary learnings of their children.  This could take the form of tax breaks for savings schemes dedicated to education, and/or co-contributions to such schemes that are more generous the lower the SES of families.

The impossible dream?

So, there you have it – my dream.  To end as I started, by self-servingly altering the lyrics of a well-known song:  Is this the impossible dream?  Am I picking a fight with an unbeatable foe?  I certainly hope not.  Not if there is a willingness to brave the run where others have dared not to go.

Mary Clarke

Principal

DXP Consulting

M: +61 401 088 571

E:  mary.clarke@dxpconsulting.com.au