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Degrees of simplicity

From the beginning of January Australia's three education sectors -- higher education, technical and further education, and schools -- have been connected through a new unified qualifications system. Instead of the complex network of college certificates, advanced certificates and associate diplomas there is now one certificate, awarded at four levels, a diploma and an advanced diploma. Universities will continue to issue diplomas and advanced diplomas, along with their degrees.

The idea is broadly in line with Scotvec and NCVQ arrangements here, a pattern that was used as the starting point for a similar initiative in New Zealand. There a government announcement is imminent after almost a year of consultation on a scheme advanced by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. Constitutionally the task was far harder in Australia -- the federal government had to reach agreement with the eight states and territories before it could introduce the framework. But the initiative there came from a sympathetic Labour government rather than from what is seen in New Zealand as a neo-Thatcherite government renowned for bulldozing through social reforms based on market principles.

So the suspicion factor was high. New Zealand's business community, largely attuned to the general thrust of the initiative, registered a number of anxieties. Among these is the effect on general education. They are aware of Britain's National Institute for Economic and Social Research warning that it has been effectively squeezed out of vocational courses here.

Universities, forced to choose between an almost certainly fruitless bid to oppose or working within the consultative process chose the latter. On the face of it it paid off. Most of the wrinkles have been ironed out, largely through a compromise over the way degrees are to be included. Degrees are now likely to retain their integrity within the framework instead of being broken down to their component parts. This has reduced fears that the unit approach adopted by the authority would fragment university qualifications, obscure their purpose, and break the identity between a degree and the university awarding it.

But a challenge still remains for New Zealand's seven universities. After the demise of the University Grants Committee in 1990, course approval and accreditation came to rest with the Vice Chancellors' Committee, using criteria established by the qualifications agency. Now a new body is to be set up to establish the aims and objectives of every degree programme in language every employer and student can understand.

This is an attractive proposition in a country where the marketplace is increasingly determining student choice, but a worrying prospect for academics who may find their intricately-contrived courses reduced to their lowest common denominator. Accreditation frameworks are going to be needed everywhere. Getting them right is not easy.

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