Australia’s “highly generic” nationwide framework for academic qualifications should be overhauled to improve training flexibility and better recognise microcredentials, a review of the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) has found.

It also warned the current model is unsuitable for a rapidly changing, technology-disrupted workforce.

Implemented in 1995 and last revised in 2013, the AQF standardises the structure, requirements, and learning outcomes of 14 formal educational qualifications ranging from Certificate I to Doctoral Degree.

Capping off its review this year, a seven-member expert panel, chaired by Professor Peter Noonan of Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute, outlined a “substantial revision” of the framework based on a review of its current structure and 134 public submissions.

The structure’s legacy design had, they concluded, relied too heavily on “highly generic” outcome statements that were “not meaningful” as technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) transformed the working world by driving “a constant state of disruption and innovation”.

The current structure “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.”

It had also made it hard to recognise less-formal qualifications such as microcredentials – discrete skills earned through short-form courses that don’t fall into conventional AQF buckets.

Changing skills for a changing world

Technology-driven change will, the review notes, make many roles obsolete and create new jobs “that place a premium on human aptitudes and capabilities, including the ability to understand, shape, interpret and reshape the use of technology.”

“As the nature of work changes and the emphasis on lifelong learning increases, employers and students will seek contemporary, transferable skills.”

Aligning educational outcomes with this structural shift, it said, makes the AQF “arguably more important today than when it was first implemented as a loose, largely sector-based framework.”

Yet inherent strictures in its design had left it incapable of accommodating the increasingly flexible educational and training practices in today’s markets.

“The current AQF taxonomy places too much weight on its levels [and] structures rather than the qualification types that primarily guide qualification development,” the review noted, arguing that “too many levels” in the current structure made it hard to differentiate between some qualification types.

This had made it hard for students to know which qualifications would have more industry value, with outcomes that “do not adequately reflect the process of learning and do not reflect current and emerging approaches to the generation of knowledge and skills.”

Among the panel’s 21 recommendations were suggestions that the AQF be revised to use just one set of descriptors; trim the framework from ten levels to eight for knowledge and six for skills; and focus the framework on describing qualification types.

A revised AQF would apply “updated, contemporary descriptors”, recognise multi-directional career pathways, and encourage the incorporation of general skills like digital literacy and ethical decision making in certification qualifications.

Learning on the go

A key focus of the review was the formalisation of ways that “shorter form credentials” such as microcredentials can be mapped onto the AQF so that employees can get formal recognition for their incremental learning.

This included changing the measurement of learning from years to hours – a move that would lend further weight to microcredentials but didn’t sit well with university providers.

The Australian Technology Network of Universities (ATN), for one, argued in its submission that the AQF is “fit for purpose” and that enterprise and social skills don’t need to be addressed further in the AQF.

Rather, the ATN said, qualifications provided by “more sophisticated” education providers should be recognised without their being included in the formal framework.

Queensland University of Technology argued for “a more flexible approach to shorter form credentials rather than including them in the AQF”.

And while the Health Information Management Association of Australia (HIMAA) recognised that “anarchic” microcredentialling “is doing for tertiary education what the development of the internet did for the distribution of information”, it warned that the sector “will have to pursue its own chaos until it starts to resolve what it is”.

The Business Council of Australia (BCA) agreed that the current AQF is “largely fit for purpose” but argued that its purpose and objectives need to be modernised “with a focus on facilitating an agile workforce and lifelong learning.”

This included better support for short-form credentials, expanding the list of enterprise and social skills included in the AQF, and developing an hours-based credit point system to facilitate pathways between levels and qualifications.

The review is yet another stage of a rolling evaluation of linkages between Australia’s education and commercial sectors.

This year the government also fast-tracked visas for regional workers, gave employers more say in the skills mix by extending the Global Talent – Employer Sponsored (GTES) visa scheme, deployed recruiters to find and lure 5,000 highly-specialised overseas workers, and moved to overhaul its Skilled Occupation List to address newer technology jobs.