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Short courses fail on policy options

03 June 2022

Attempts to formalise the millions of short courses available on digital platforms to anyone wanting to upskill could be a headache that stunts, rather than promotes, informal learning.

Julie Hare

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Attempts to formalise the millions of short courses available on digital platforms to anyone wanting to upskill could be a headache that stunts, rather than promotes, informal learning.

Both Labor and the Coalition have made election promises to improve the recognition of short online courses, also known as micro-credentials, but experts say attempts to ringfence credentialing around existing providers, such as universities and TAFEs, might serve little purpose.

“There has always been non-structured learning,” Andrew Norton, a higher education policy expert with Australian National University, said.

“There is nothing remotely new in short courses. The only thing that has changed is the desire to have some standardised description of them. And it’s not entirely clear whether having a standarised description is going to be hugely useful in conveying what skills you have, particularly for people who are already working and improving their skills in their current job.”

Labor’s education policy states it will work with state and territory governments, industry groups and unions “on opportunities which allow workers to transfer and build on their accredited micro-credential training”. However, little detail is available and there is no mention of education institutions such as universities.

Last week, Stuart Robert, the acting education minister, said he would put $5 million towards the trial of a “skills passport” that would initially help match workers with tech jobs.

“Where there are skills gaps to fill, we want Australians to have the first crack at getting that opportunity and our skills passport approach will enable rapid upskilling and reskilling,” Mr Robert said in a statement.

The trial will be run by the Australian Technology Network and has the backing of the Tech Council of Australia.

Almost insatiable demand

ATN executive director Luke Sheehy said the passport would provide confidence that participants’ completion of micro-credentials was recognised by employers and other universities. It would also help workers understand what skills they need to accumulate to head into a new line of work.

“Students want the confidence of a university-backed passport where they can prove what they have done, that it has meaning and has an impact on their career,” Mr Sheehy said.

The notion of a skills passport coincides with US online giant Coursera’s establishment of a bricks-and-mortar presence in Sydney.

Sue Turk, its first managing director for Australia and New Zealand, said there was an almost insatiable demand for short, skill-specific courses from both employers and students.

“Business needs are constantly evolving, and employees are expected to acquire new skills at an increasingly rapid pace to perform in their roles,” Ms Turk said.

“Individuals are interested in guided projects like professional certificates and online degrees. From a company perspective, it’s about strategic, enterprise-wide learning and role-based development, and getting the balance between soft and technical skills, and for the government it’s about developing high-growth jobs.”

Ms Turk said Coursera had recently introduced “Clips”, a set of more than 10,000 searchable, bite-sized videos and lessons to help learners quickly develop the skills they need to do their jobs successfully.

Universities are both suppliers of content, such as Macquarie University’s hugely popular Clip on how to use SUM and AUTOSUM on Excel, while also providing other institutions’ content as part of their coursework.

However, the sheer size and complexity of the online short course market means Coursera’s courses would not be recognised under the ATN’s skills passport. Nor would micro-credentials undertaken by other online platforms such as Google, LinkedIn Learning, Cisco and Amazon.

Micro-credential marketplace

The federal government has moved to address the rise of micro-credentials and how to deal with them. In 2020, it announced the creation of a micro-credential marketplace that would allow students to compare options. It is still under development.

It commissioned a report into the Australian Qualifications Framework in the 2017 budget but has not yet responded to the final report. But it did commission PwC to review a micro-credentials framework that was handed over last November.

While the complexity of a skills passport and marketplace make progress difficult, Tech Council chief executive Kate Pounder said any initiatives that help to make the micro-credential landscape easier to navigate were helpful.

“This boom in informal training works for people who have a sense of what the jobs are, where they want to get to and don’t really care if the training is accredited or not,” Ms Pounder said.

“But there is probably a much bigger share of Australians who want the certainty of knowing their learning is accredited and will be recognised by an employer. I think that’s a bit of the missing puzzle.”

Digital learning expert Claire Macken, of RMIT University, said being able to map skills acquisition, especially in tech-related jobs, would potentially help increase the number of people in the IT workforce.

“University qualifications don’t show skill acquisition, just the broad subjects undertaken. This is much more nuanced,” Dr Macken said.

The Tech Council has forecast that Australia will need 1 million people in tech jobs by 2025. That means another 260,000 people in four years.

More than 60 per cent of students now studying IT in universities are from overseas, and half of them will return home after completion.