In February last year the UK Parliament’s Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee took evidence from the vice chancellor of Oxford University John Hood. Sitting next to him was Janet Beer, the vice chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, which is located in Oxford’s suburbs. Labour MP Graham Stringer asked the vice chancellors: is an honours degree in history from Oxford University worth the same as an honours degree in history from Oxford Brookes?
Hood replied: “At Oxford, we apply a consistent standard in awarding degree classifications. We use external examiners and we take their assessments very, very seriously.” Beer said: “It depends what you mean by equivalent and worth,” adding that her university knew its honours degree was “of a national standard”. The vice chancellors’ responses were pretty standard for UK universities but unsatisfactory for the members of parliament who assessed their replies as not passing a final year school essay.
Australian universities couldn’t give even the UK universities’ replies since unlike UK universities Australian universities don’t have external examiners for undergraduate and coursework masters degrees. Many university degrees are accredited by external bodies with varying rigour, such as in accounting, education, engineering, law and nursing. The external bodies evaluate inputs such as teaching facilities and the number and quality of staff and students. They examine processes such as the curriculum, how well it is taught and the amount of practical training and how well it is supervised. And accrediting bodies also evaluate outputs such as students’ examination and project work and the reports of employers. But in the arts, management, sciences and many smaller disciplines there is no external accreditation. The best most Australian universities can say about academic standards of a third of their graduates is: trust us.
The Australian Government is planning to fill this gap with the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency which will start operating in 2011. The new standards agency will audit higher education’s compliance with standards for registering institutions being drafted by Australian government officials, qualifications standards being revised by the Australian Qualifications Framework Council, academic standards being developed by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, research standards being established by the Australian Research Council and information standards which will also be developed by Australian government officials.
The difficulty is defining academic standards precisely enough to protect students and the community against unacceptable lapses in standards, but not so tightly to suppress innovative and diverse ways of teaching and assessing students. For example, some universities teach a discipline such as education or medicine as a dedicated undergraduate program while others offer it as a specialised postgraduate program after a general undergraduate degree. Some universities teach it by its component disciplines with perhaps an integrating “capstone” final subject or project, while others have a ‘problem based’ curriculum which teaches students through problems that practitioners typically face. Some institutions start clinical and practical placements in first year while others leave placements to final year when students are more mature and informed.
Australian and State governments thought they solved this conundrum in 1992 when they adopted competency based training for vocational education and training. The principle of competency based training is laudable. Programs should be evaluated and accredited not according to their inputs and processes but just by their outputs. If a student can reach the desired standard after one year’s study they shouldn’t be required to “serve time” to complete the two or three years normally scheduled for the program. If an institution can bring its students up to the required standard with fewer inputs than others they shouldn’t be tied to the inefficiencies of their competitors.
At the same time the Australian and State governments sought to escape what they called “provider capture”. They argued that the curriculum setting out what students had to learn shouldn’t be determined by teachers - the providers of education who allegedly included ‘irrelevant’ material that interested them and kept them in jobs. Instead, competencies should be determined by employers who they argued knew what is actually needed in the workplace.
The vocational qualifications based on workplace competencies are called training packages. They have failed to meet their expectations, for two reasons. While it is a fine goal to define and assess educational programs just by their outputs, it is an ideal which no one has yet been able to achieve for any but the most rudimentary skills. The training for most skilled jobs is too complex to be evaluated just by competencies. One could elaborate the assessment tasks in increasing detail to cover all the important possibilities, but this makes them impossibly unwieldy and reduces assessment to routine checking known as ‘tick and flick’.
Unfortunately the only reliable way of ensuring that graduates have the necessary skills is to ensure that they follow the curriculum supported by the resources that are known to produce competent graduates. To express the same point in another way, learning and teaching is a very complex activity which is not well understood. Without understanding the learning-teaching process fully it is not possible to define it only by its outputs.
Secondly, many workplaces are different. They have different processes, use different systems and equipment and have different managements. The same general type of work may be done in a small enterprise with only one business, a big company with just one business or a company with several businesses. With that variety comes differences in the way work is done in each enterprise. Assessing students against the skills needed in one workplace doesn’t ensure that they are competent in another workplace, and still less does it equip workers for change. And of course assessing students against workplace competencies ignores the skills they need to advance their learning to get higher level qualifications.
The Australian and State governments are therefore gradually changing training packages. In December last year the National Quality Council broadened its definition of ‘competency’ and reduced the reliance on assessing competencies in the workplace. But much more still has to be done to assess standards properly in vocational education and therefore to restore confidence in vocational qualifications.
The assurance of standards is therefore problematic in both vocational and higher education. Each has recognised its problems and is addressing them. But in both sectors the direction of change is unclear and so it is not yet possible to judge whether they are changing for the better.
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