By Dr Nicholas Voudouris MAPS, Senior Manager, Science and Education, APS National Office, and Dr Mick Hunter MAPS, Chair, Heads of Schools and Departments of Psychology Association (HODSPA)

The Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF), first created by the Federal Government in 1995, is Australia’s single national system of descriptors, guidelines and protocols for qualifications issued across education and training sectors, including higher education, vocational education and training (VET), and senior secondary school. The main purposes of the AQF are to ensure national recognition, consistency and a common understanding across Australia as to what defines each type of educational qualification. The AQF also provides an important system for benchmarking against qualifications in other countries.
The AQF defines 10 levels of increasing complexity against which 15 qualification types across all education and training sectors are mapped (see Table 1).

Table 1. Types of higher education qualifications and the corresponding levels at which they are located in the AQF
 

 Qualification type AQF level
 Diploma
5
 Advanced Diploma 6
 Bachelor 7
 Bachelor with honours 8
 Masters 9
 Doctorate 10

   

Revision of the AQF

In May 2008 the Government established the Australian Qualifications Framework Council (AQFC) to provide advice to the Ministerial Council for Tertiary Education and Employment (MCTEE) regarding the AQF, including advice on how the AQF might be strengthened to improve its national consistency and contemporary relevance, as well as the national and international portability of Australian qualifications. In January 2009 the AQFC commenced the Strengthening the AQF project, issuing consultation papers and holding various fora and workshops concerned with the overall structure and design of the AQF. In November 2009, MCTEE accepted the preliminary advice of the AQFC regarding a revised AQF structure, and by the start of 2010 the AQFC had commenced a second phase of redevelopment work, commissioning research to empirically test the proposed structure.
This work resulted in the publication of a third AQFC consultation paper in July 2010, detailing proposed revisions to AQF structures and policies. Notable changes which were proposed included defining two kinds of qualifications (research and coursework) in the descriptor for Masters degrees (level 9), so as to better accommodate entry level qualifications for regulated professions such as psychology.

In November 2010 the AQFC provided a draft specification for the Doctoral degree descriptor (level 10 of the AQF) to MCTEE for approval and MCTEE requested further review of the descriptor in consultation with the Council of Deans and Directors of Graduate Studies in Australia (DDoGS). A key change resulting from this and further “targeted” consultations which were undertaken at high levels within the academic sector (but without reference to professional accreditation bodies or organisations) was a single descriptor for the Doctoral degree, which more heavily emphasised research as the defining characteristic of all Doctoral qualifications. While both the research and professional (coursework) forms of Doctoral degrees were distinguished in the draft, the level 10 descriptor included a requirement that research in the program of independent supervised study will be “typically two thirds of the qualification and at least two years” for all Doctoral degrees. In other words, all Doctorates would have to contain at least two years of full-time research in order to comply with the AQF. This change is significant, since the AQF has never before prescribed any minimum quantum of research for coursework Doctoral degrees.

The APS, Australian Psychology Accreditation Council (APAC), and Heads of Schools and Departments of Psychology (HODSPA) lobbied hard for further time and consultation opportunities which would enable the psychology profession to assess the likely impact of, and give advice about, the proposed change. Unfortunately the AQFC did not give much weight to the input from the profession and the Ministerial Council approved the revised version of the AQF at its 18 March meeting, with implementation scheduled to commence on 1 July 2011 under the control of the soon-to-be-established Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA). The AQF will be one tool used by TEQSA to accredit higher education degrees.

Current psychology Doctoral programs

To understand the consequences which are likely to follow if the revised AQF level 10 descriptor is imposed on psychology’s Doctorate level education and training pathways, it is helpful to first review the landscape of APAC-accredited postgraduate Doctoral degrees in psychology across Australia.
There are currently two types of Doctoral programs in psychology in Australia. The first is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), which essentially is an advanced research training degree, although many higher education providers now offer the option of coursework professional training conjointly with PhD enrolment. These degrees are unlikely to be affected, easily meeting the test of two years full-time research work (although, even here it is possible that in some four-year degree programs the two years of full-time might constitute 50 per cent of the whole rather than the 66 per cent required by the AQF).
The second type is the Doctor of Psychology coursework program (DPsych). These degrees are primarily professional coursework (i.e., practitioner) training courses with advanced practice components in at least one specialised area of psychology, along with a substantial research project. Professional coursework Doctorates in psychology have been well established in Australia for over 15 years; they represent a strong feature of the education pathways for the professional psychology workforce and are a well-recognised pathway for psychologist training internationally. In order to meet accreditation requirements, these degrees must offer advanced coursework, including training in sophisticated research methods and a strong emphasis throughout on evidence-based approaches. Professional coursework Doctorates in psychology are strongly research-based degrees, supporting a strong research skill base within the profession and a training approach that is rooted in evidence-based practice.
As a separate development, a group of these DPsych degrees have been designed to meet a requirement of 66 per cent research content in order to qualify as Higher Degrees by Research and to be eligible for funding under the government’s Research Training Scheme (RTS). These degrees range from three to five years in duration and at the time of writing there are 17 accredited programs of this type operating across nine higher education providers in five States and Territories. By virtue of their 66 per cent research content, these programs will, like PhDs, meet the two years full-time research requirement of the new AQF. It is recognised that, although these Doctorates attract RTS funding, they are nonetheless more expensive for universities to provide.
While all professional Doctorates are required by APAC’s Accreditation Standards to contain a substantial research project and other research training components, many DPsych programs contain the equivalent of only one year of full-time research work, which is the minimum quantum of research work required by APAC for this kind of degree. There are 37 such DPsych programs currently accredited in Australia.

Consequences for Doctoral level training

Despite the fact that the AQF recognises the contribution of advanced coursework and practice-integrated elements to the calculation of the level 10 course research quantum, APAC advises that most of the 37 DPsych degrees not already eligible for RTS funding are unlikely to be able to demonstrate two years of full-time research work to an accrediting authority. If this analysis is correct – and setting aside for the time being the question of what might be the appropriate quantum and types of research training for practitioners at this level – the question becomes: how might these courses respond if TEQSA imposes the new AQF level 10 requirement for two years full-time research?

Although some higher education providers will be able to meet the increased costs and supervision loads required to extend the research component of their DPsych programs by an additional year, many will be hard pressed to do so, despite the potential benefits of RTS funding. This impost will occur in the context of the current shortfall of over $8,000 per student per annum between the Commonwealth funding provided and the actual cost of mounting a professional postgraduate coursework place (Voudouris & Mrowinski, 2010) and will lead to some loss of places. The APS believes that the current one year full-time research quantum required by the APAC Standards for DPsych degrees is sufficient research training for practitioners given that the current DPsych degree in Australia is already a strongly research-focused qualification.

The most serious potential negative impact is that a number of DPsych courses will likely have to be redesigned at the Masters level (AQF level 9) as a consequence of the change. The subsequent loss of available Doctorate degrees that will inevitably result from this reclassification exercise is considered to be a retrograde step for two main reasons. First, it will reduce opportunities for trainees to choose advanced practitioner education and training, which has always been the main reason for having Doctoral level degrees available as an option in the profession’s training pathways. Second, it will force a greater emphasis on research skills and training during the final phase of a training pathway that is already heavily research-focused, rather than on the other advanced practitioner knowledge and skills. In this regard it is important to remember that all psychologists have completed a full year of research work at the fourth year level.

The APS and HODSPA lobbied the AQFC and Federal Government vigorously over the final stages of the revisions to the AQF, seeking assurance that accredited coursework Doctorates in psychology in Australia will not be compelled to raise the minimum research quantum of the training from one to two full-time years, so as to avoid negative, widespread and costly impacts on education and training pathways for the psychology profession. The AQFC has however suggested that professional postgraduate coursework education and training in psychology should be conducted at level 9 (Masters level), without any clear rationale.

It remains to be seen how the soon-to-be-established TEQSA will implement the AQF specifications for level 10 as it assumes its role as the higher education system regulator. The APS and HODSPA will lobby TEQSA for a sensible approach to the implementation of the AQF that will not negatively impact on the costs of, and the standards of training available in, the established training pathways for psychologists in Australia. n

References

Commonweath of Australia, (2011). Australian Qualifications Framework. Accessed 02/05/2011 from: www.aqf.edu.au/.

Voudouris, N.J. & Mrowinski, V. (2010). Alarming drop in availability of postgraduate psychology training. InPsych, 32(2), 20-23.