National regulation

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Quality in higher education is governed by the Higher Education Standards Framework (HESF) and the Australian Qualification Framework (AQF).  Both frameworks are based on outcomes for successful completion of a course of study. Regulation of higher education, including compliance with the frameworks, is managed by the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA) which also administers the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 (ESOS Act).

Australian Universities are self-accrediting.  That is, they are trusted to accredit their own qualifications providing they comply with the legislative requirements. Compliance with HESF is required by January 2017.

The AQF sets out criteria for qualifications approved for higher education including Bachelor (AQF Level 7), Honours (AQF Level 8), Masters (AQF Level 9).  It specifies broad learning outcomes in three categories: knowledge, skills and application of knowledge & skills.

‘Knowledge is what a graduate knows and understands. It is described in terms of depth, breadth, kinds of knowledge and complexity.’

‘Skills are what a graduate can do. Skills are described in terms of the kinds and complexity of skills.’

‘Application of knowledge and skills is the context in which a graduate applies knowledge and skills.’

The AQF is particularly useful for deciding the appropriate level of a qualification and pathways between qualifications.

The HESF sets out standards in seven domains. TEQSA provides notes on each of these domains to help providers to comply.

1. Student Participation and Attainment
2. Learning Environment
3. Teaching
4. Research and Research Training
5. Institutional Quality Assurance
6. Governance and Accountability
7. Representation, Information and Information Management

Domains 1 mandates an outcome-based design incorporating the use of learning outcomes and linkage to assessment (Clause 1.4).

1.4       Learning Outcomes and Assessment

1.      The expected learning outcomes for each course of study are specified, consistent with the level and field of education of the qualification awarded, and informed by national and international comparators.

2.      The specified learning outcomes for each course of study encompass discipline-related and generic outcomes, including:

a.  specific knowledge and skills and their application that characterise the field(s) of education or disciplines involved

b.  generic skills and their application in the context of the field(s) of education or disciplines involved

c.  knowledge and skills required for employment and further study related to the course of study, including those required to be eligible to seek registration to practise where applicable, and

d.   skills in independent and critical thinking suitable for life-long learning.

3.      Methods of assessment are consistent with the learning outcomes being assessed, are capable of confirming that all specified learning outcomes are achieved and that grades awarded reflect the level of student attainment.

4.      On completion of a course of study, students have demonstrated the learning outcomes specified for the course of study, whether assessed at unit level, course level, or in combination.

Reproduced from the Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) 2015.

The standards require credible external referencing of outcomes against national and/or international comparators (see 1.4.1 quoted above).

The regulator, TEQSA, expects Universities to demonstrate appropriate course design with reference to external benchmarking. It points to learning outcomes statements developed for the field of education or discipline by discipline communities or professional bodies’ as suitable reference points‘.

The Science TLOs are national reference points for university degrees in science and mathematical sciences.

TEQSA notes that learning outcomes must be linked to course design and expects to see learning outcomes mapped to teaching and assessment across each course.

To demonstrate that the course is designed in such a way that these Standards are required to be met will require at a minimum some form of mapping of where expected course learning outcomes are taught, practised and assessed and how they are aligned with unit learning outcomes and assessment.’

Mapping includes demonstration of how outcomes in individual subjects/units combine to achieve the intended learning outcomes for a course.  In practice, this is challenging for generalist degrees which house many majors or disciplinary sequences.  The Science TLOs provide a common thread for all majors in science and mathematical sciences.

Domain 3: Teaching includes standards for course content and learning activities (Clause 3.1.2) that point back to the agreed knowledge and understanding in a discipline.  Consensus statements about the nature of a discipline or body of knowledge will inform the content of a course.

2.      The content and learning activities of each course of study engage with advanced knowledge and inquiry consistent with the level of study and the expected learning outcomes, including:

a.  current knowledge and scholarship in relevant academic disciplines

b.  study of the underlying theoretical and conceptual frameworks of the academic disciplines or fields of education or research represented in the course, and

c.  emerging concepts that are informed by recent scholarship, current research findings and, where applicable, advances in practice.

Reproduced from the Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) 2015.