Review of the Australian Qualifications Framework Final Report 2019
Type of Publication: Professional commentary
Lead Organisation: NCSEHE
Year Published: 2019
Lead Researcher: NCSEHE
The Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) is the national policy for regulated qualifications.
The Australian Government announced a review of the AQF in the 2017–18 budget to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of students, employers, education providers and the wider community.
The Review of the Australian Qualifications Framework Final Report 2019 was published in October 2019.
The NCSEHE contributed one of 134 submissions to the review, with recommendations incorporated into the Final Report. Findings and recommendations to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds included:
Some students, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, undertake enabling courses to improve their readiness to study AQF qualifications. These courses are often linked to one institution and are not necessarily recognised by others. This can limit options for these students. A qualification type that provides a description of enabling courses could improve portability of those courses.
Recommendation 10 — Consider developing an AQF qualification type (not necessarily aligned at a band) for domestic post-secondary enabling programs, once common learning outcomes for enabling programs have been developed.
The Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) is a critical part of the architecture of the Australian education and training system. The AQF defines the essential characteristics, including the required learning outcomes, of the 14 different types of qualifications issued across the senior secondary education, vocational education and training (VET) and higher education systems in Australia.
Australia was among the first countries to develop and implement a national qualifications framework. Although the structure and purposes of national qualification frameworks vary between countries, their central purpose is to ‘establish a basis for improving the quality, accessibility, linkages and public or labour market recognition of qualifications within a country and internationally’.
Qualifications for the future
To retain their relevance and effectiveness, qualifications will need to respond to current and emerging workforce and social needs, be delivered in ways that meet learners’ needs and circumstances, and be trusted by learners, employers and the community generally. The traditional role of formal qualifications is challenged by the ready availability of information through the Internet, declining trust in institutions and traditional sources of authority. Many people gain skills and experience in a variety of settings outside the formal education and training system.
The ongoing effect of new technology – particularly artificial intelligence – is transforming the world of work through its power to analyse, aggregate and disseminate information, including new knowledge. Production of goods, transportation and services, including health and the media, are in a constant state of disruption and innovation.
Many current job roles will become redundant, particularly in areas of standardised and routine production and service delivery. But new roles are also emerging, roles that place a premium on human aptitudes and capabilities, including the ability to understand, shape, interpret and reshape the use of technology. Skills required for sustainable development, including the transition to lower carbon emissions, and which address the impact of climate change, are also increasingly important.
Workplaces are also transforming. They are becoming more diverse and inclusive, more flexible in employment and work practices, and generally less hierarchical. Teamwork and collaboration are increasingly valued, as is collective rather than individual initiative and achievement. Effective and ethical leadership and governance are essential to the success and reputation of organisations.
Employers have strong and growing expectations that graduates will be work ready and productive. In turn, employees expect to have their skills and capabilities recognised and rewarded with ongoing opportunities for career and personal development. Individuals will need to be able to manage multiple career transitions, and to build their own career paths and business opportunities, through continuous learning and development. Many professions are also refocusing their requirements for professional entry and ongoing accreditation on a broad range of aptitudes and capabilities; their perspective is broadening from the familiar focus on technical and occupational proficiency.
Innovation within firms and across industries, underpinned by workforce capability, will be essential to improved productivity and competitiveness. Australia’s capacity for world leading research, and the application of research outcomes, will be underpinned by research training capacity and the ability to recruit and retain world-class researchers.
Industries, firms, and education and training institutions are increasingly globally engaged. Many Australians will live and work overseas. Immigration will continue to be a source of specialist skills for the Australian economy. Education services will continue to be one of Australia’s major export industries, founded on the quality and recognition of Australian qualifications and the institutions that offer them.
A qualifications framework needs to operate in, and help shape a future in which:
- Central economic and social policy goals are to widen participation in education and training, and to improve educational attainment levels, particularly among those with low levels of participation and attainment.
- Young people can successfully transition into post-secondary education and training through a broad range of options and pathways, and complete at least an initial tertiary qualification. Lifelong learning must become a practical reality for people; it cannot stand as an abstract goal.
- Post-secondary education and training is conceived and redesigned as a diverse set of offerings, available through better linkages and pathways between the VET and higher education sectors. These linkages and pathways will no longer be linear and hierarchical; they will need to recognise that throughout adulthood, people need to develop new skills in different areas and at different levels. Central to this objective is reinvigorating the VET system and raising its standing.
- As they transition into post-school education and training, young people must have a well-informed appreciation of the purpose of different qualifications and the relationship between qualifications. That appreciation must be accessible to adults seeking to deepen existing skills or gain new skills. Qualification outcomes will be relevant, understood, and trusted.
- Firms and people will have ready, flexible access to a broad suite of options and opportunities for developing new skills. They will look to short, purpose-built, flexibly delivered qualifications – within and outside the formal qualification system – to gain new skills and knowledge. Systems and processes for credit recognition and recognition of prior learning will be easier to access, more transparent, and rigorous in applying the credit recognition process to ensure quality is maintained and qualification outcome requirements are met.
- The competitiveness of Australian education and training as a major export industry will be influenced by perceptions of the standing, quality, and relevance of its system of qualifications.
The case for reform
The Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) sets the overall framework for the design and quality assurance of education and training in Australia. It does not prescribe course content or methods of delivery and assessment. Factors such as funding, governance, regulation and institutional responsiveness have far greater influence on education and training than the AQF. Qualifications also sit within broader economic, social and cultural contexts, which can strongly influence perceptions about their standing and expectations about what they should provide.
Nonetheless the relevance, effectiveness and utility of the AQF is arguably more important today than when it was first implemented as a loose, largely sector based framework in 1995. It provides the common language for the design and description of the types of Australian qualifications and the relationships between them, in a future where increasing levels and closing gaps in levels of educational attainment will remain a central economic and social policy goal for Australia.
The current version of the AQF is a more comprehensive and complete framework than earlier versions. It is widely used and applied. However, the Panel has found that the AQF should be significantly reformed.
Too much weight is placed on its levels structures rather than the qualifications aligned to those levels. Its ten-level structure is duplicated but not consistently expressed, too rigid and overly hierarchical, with artificial and arbitrary distinctions between levels. This results in poor differentiation between some qualification types, and descriptions of skills and knowledge that do not reflect existing leading practice, let alone meet future requirements. The assumption that knowledge and skills can both be defined and differentiated at ten levels is flawed. The application of knowledge and skills is context dependant and cannot be automatically linked to levels of knowledge and skills without entrenching hierarchical assumptions about VET relative to higher education qualifications.
The use of highly generic graduate outcome statements to define and differentiate qualification types is not meaningful, given the range of different qualifications, their purposes, and also the context within which they are delivered. The Senior Secondary Certificate of Education has sat apart from other qualifications in the AQF since its inception and the AQF currently has little influence on senior secondary education.
The AQF Qualifications Pathways Policy is generally understood by users of the AQF but provides only limited guidance on credit recognition between some qualifications. It was not designed to provide for recognition and alignment of shorter form credentials, including microcredentials, a rapidly emerging and evolving area in education and training.
As currently defined in the AQF, volume of learning reflects dated and increasingly outmoded assumptions about how AQF qualifications are delivered.
A future AQF
The Panel has proposed a comprehensive set of reforms and an implementation plan that would see a future AQF evolve as follows:
- A less complex AQF structure with a primary focus on the qualification types in the AQF (Degrees, Certificates etc.).
- A single and clearer taxonomy comprising eight bands of knowledge and six bands of skills more flexibly applied. Application is not rigidly locked to other bands (or levels).
- Contemporary definitions of knowledge and skills are used. Knowledge, Skills and Application are defined in terms of action – the information to inform action, the capabilities to take action and the context for action.
- Using these features, the AQF is refocused on the design of qualifications linked to learning outcomes for individual qualifications.
- Additional information is included to help define qualification types, particularly for qualifications leading to Nationally Recognised Training delivered through the VET sector, for apprenticeships and for research-oriented qualifications.
- General capabilities (such as digital literacy and ethical decision making) are identified for use in individual qualifications.
- The AQF Pathways Policy is revised 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.
- A prototype national credit points system is developed for voluntary adoption by institutions and sectors.
- Qualification types are realigned against the revised taxonomy (based on options outlined in this Report) including the addition of a higher diploma qualification. VET certificates can be more meaningfully titled to reflect their purpose.
- The Senior Secondary Certificate of Education is more clearly defined and represented in the AQF in terms of its role in preparing young people for a range of pathways into VET and higher education (including with credit).
- Volume of learning is expressed in terms of hours, not years, and applied as a benchmark for compliance and quality assurance.
- An ongoing governance body for the AQF is established to give effect to decisions of the Review of the AQF and to provide advice on revisions to the AQF where required in the future.
- AQF policies are updated or assigned to the relevant agency, with redundant policies removed. The AQF is more consistently referenced and applied in VET and higher education sector standards and guidelines.
Figure 1 below summarises the effect of the principal revisions to the AQF if the Panel’s recommendations, outlined in Table 1, are adopted.
 Within the 14 qualification types, both the Masters Degree and the Doctoral Degree specify more than one qualification type. The Masters Degree specifies the Masters Degree (Research), the Masters Degree (Coursework) and the Masters Degree (Extended). The Doctoral Degree specifies the Doctoral Degree (Research), the Doctoral Degree (Professional) and the Higher Doctorate.
 OECD, Qualifications Systems: Bridges to Lifelong Learning, Education and Training Policy, 2007, p. 22
Read the full report: Review of the Australian Qualifications Framework Final Report 2019