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Wednesday, 19 June 1996
Page: 1794

Senator TIERNEY(12.45 p.m.) —I rise in this matter of public interest debate today to raise an issue of great importance to post-secondary education in Australia; that is, the development of learning pathways—allowing students access to post-secondary education across all its various levels, from learning centres right through to universities.

Despite the former Labor government's rhetoric in this area, learning pathways in Australia have not yet evolved to very sophisticated levels. Many of the current structures between the different types of education providers do not mesh properly. Moving between different levels of post-secondary education is very difficult for many students and many of the pathways that are supposed to exist remain very poorly connected. This lack of proper meshing is a major frustration because it wastes the time of students in repeating courses unnecessarily. It also wastes very scarce institutional resources.

As a senator, I have had quite a number of people come to me who have had such pathway problems. One that stands out in my mind particularly is an accountancy student who had completed four years part time of a diploma in accounting at TAFE. That is the equivalent of two years full-time study. When he approached the nearby university to transfer to a degree course in accountancy, he was granted six months out of the two years equivalent. In other words, he was only given a quarter and more or less had to go back almost to scratch. This is despite having spent four years studying part time. Those sorts of examples are rife through the system and bring on this need to create smoother pathways from one section to another and to remove the many barriers to articulation that exist in this country.

There have been in recent times some welcome moves on this front. The ministerial council for employment, education, training and youth affairs set up the Australian qualification framework. I emphasise at this stage that what I am about to describe is not in place; it is a plan. It is an objective to get such pathways in place. They are aiming to make national qualifications much more consistent and, particularly in the developing international market for Australian educational services, to make them better understood internationally. They take into account key competency, structure and content, and changes in the vocational education and training courses.

This framework was endorsed by all ministers, state and federal, when it was put to the council. The Australian qualification framework aims to link and mesh our educational sectors to emphasise key competency qualifications and to emphasise skill and knowledge in terms of the levels people are at, not the length of the course. Senior secondary qualifications link in to the vocational education and training level under this scheme and those courses in turn link in to higher education courses. The framework is a very good guide to course developers and it is excellent for an understandable system of qualification registration. We only hope—I will certainly be urging for this to occur—the new government will implement this framework as quickly as possible.

I mentioned that the framework is in the planning stage and not in force across the country. However, there are a number of bright spots that I want to mention briefly where such articulation in the system, such credit transfer, such pathways, already exist in a few isolated spots. They are in my own area of northern New South Wales, so I would like to mention two of them just briefly.

The first is at the Ourimbah campus of the University of Newcastle. Ourimbah, for those who do not know their geography, is just outside of Gosford on the central coast of New South Wales. The University of Newcastle and the Hunter Institute of Technology, which run the TAFE program, have developed a joint development at the Ourimbah campus. They have a single management structure where the vice-chancellor of the University of Newcastle and the director of the Hunter Institute of Technology have devolved responsibility to develop integrated courses and pathways between TAFE and university courses at that site to the director of the central coast campus. They took in their first 50 students in 1989.

I was a member of the committee that was involved in the establishment of that university campus. Now, seven years later, what has developed on this site is absolutely amazing—in terms of facilities, in terms of the programming and in terms of the staffing. Enrolments after 1989 doubled each year and currently there are 3,000 tertiary students on that site, two-thirds of them enrolled in higher education courses with the rest studying vocational education and training.

The campus operates as a single integrated unit. The original plan was to have TAFE up one end and the university down the other end and to have common sports fields, union and library facilities, but they have gone much further than that. You can walk along a corridor and have a TAFE class in one room and a university class in the next one. Staff are all in the same area as well, and it operates as an integrated unit with a very strong emphasis on collaboration across the two sectors. This has assisted potential and continuing students with course choices, articulation of their program and credit transfer.

A federal government working party has now been established to inquire into the further development of this site as a central coast university of technology. The minister has approved a working party to investigate the further development of this concept, which would use not only the Ourimbah site that I have been talking about but also the Gosford and Wyong sites of TAFE, to operate a range of TAFE courses and university courses across all three sites.

There is a very definite need for this in the central coast area. People might not realise it, but that central coast region, Wyong, now has a quarter of a million people. Just to the north is Greater Newcastle, with a third of a million people, and just to the south is northern Sydney, in very close proximity to this campus and with one million people. So it is at the centre of a hub which is well connected by train lines and roads and which will, with this very imaginative approach to post-secondary education, do extremely well.

A second example of this sort of articulation and excellent credit transfer in the system is further north at the University of the Southern Cross, which is located mainly in Lismore with a number of satellite campuses. They have School of Business courses ranging from the certificate level through to PhD. A lot of these courses are tailor-made to industry needs. They have worked, in particular, with leading companies such as Coles Myer and, in the public arena, Telstra to develop courses where people can plug in at these various levels and move up to further levels from certificate through to PhD. The two examples I have given are models which show how learning pathways can be properly connected.

However, despite the value of credit transfer, such bright spots as I have mentioned are fairly rare. We have a very poor history in this country on this whole issue of credit transfer which contrasts with countries like the United States, which are much more generous in their credit transfer arrangements. In the three sabbaticals I have done in the United States I noted, in particular, how generous they were in acknowledging properly the work that people had done in some other way before they came to an institution and giving them due credit for it.

Australia reached its low point on this matter probably in the 1950s, when the University of New England broke off from the University of Sydney and the University of Sydney would not recognise the University of New England undergraduate qualifications for post-graduate work. Fortunately, we have got past that. In the 1960s my sister-in-law did eight-ninths of a degree at the University of New South Wales. When my brother, her husband, went to New Guinea she enrolled externally through the University of Queensland and they granted her four-ninths of a degree. She had eight-ninths and she had to go back to four-ninths. That is incredibly wasteful.

How are things in the 1990s? They are not much better. One of my daughters is doing a Bachelor of Business at the University of Newcastle. Her husband moved to Sydney with his job. She went to Sydney and enrolled at UTS. She had 50 per cent of a Bachelor of Business. They said: `We will give you 30 per cent.' She managed to haggle that up to 40 per cent. Credit transfer in 1996 is still a major problem.

The credit transfer agency that I referred to earlier hopefully will overcome some of these problems, but unfortunately that agency, with such high and lofty aims, has two people on staff. It is overworked and grossly understaffed. It is a pity, because it is a false economy. If you look at what happens across the whole system, you will find that it is very wasteful for students to repeat work they have already done. It takes up staffing time, it takes up library time, it takes up teaching time, it takes up institutional space.

I will argue that the new government should give a much higher priority than the last government did to this whole credit transfer business, not only because of the obvious economies to the government in such an arrangement, delivering programs much more efficiently and effectively, but also because of the much smoother pathway that it creates for training in our community for individuals, many of whom have been disadvantaged, to achieve their full potential.