Internationally, Australia’s tertiary education system, comprising the higher education and vocational education and training (VET) sectors, is highly regarded, with both sectors subject to ongoing national review and reforms. This paper explores in detail the multiple issues that lie at what might be termed the ‘boundaries and connections’ between these sectors.
One marker that delineates the sectoral boundaries is the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF), in particular AQF level 5 (VET diploma) and AQF level 6 (associate degree/advanced diploma). VET diplomas sit on one side of this boundary, and those financed under the previous VET FEE-HELP program (to be replaced by the new VET Student Loans program) have recently attracted considerable public scrutiny.
The conditions for the operation of the tertiary education system, especially the boundaries and connections between the VET and higher education sectors, are set by national and state/territory policies, embodied in regulations, programs and funding. In exploring the multiple issues that have evolved at the sectoral boundaries and connections, this paper highlights examples that have eroded clear differentiation between the sectors, as well as their mutual value within a coherent tertiary education system. The present situation has been caused by a combination of: differing sector-specific national policies and agreements; differing sectoral financing/funding; and differing sectoral legislation, regulation and standards, as well as overlapping qualification frameworks and different standards for courses and qualifications.
- VET participation is declining in relation to higher education participation as a consequence of policy and funding reforms that have travelled along ‘different tracks’ over the last six to eight years.
- The boundaries and connections between the sectors present examples of significant confusion and of considerable inter-institutional contest, as well as willing collaboration. In aggregate, this imposes an unquantifiable national cost burden.
- The establishment of student ‘loans’, spanning VET diplomas to degrees, has, by design or not, reset higher education and VET sector policy, program and funding boundaries.
- From the perspective of students, the ability to pick and mix the best from university and vocational education and training, be it skilling, academic study or work experience, can only be beneficial to the needs of employers and to students’ future jobs.
- Policy and incentives need to ensure the equitable funding of mid-level professionals, including, for example, associate degrees and higher apprenticeships.
- Improving and systematising cross-sector transfer arrangements for students is a priority, supported by use of common data standards and a system-wide unique student identifier (utilising existing sectoral numbering).