Dean Forbes



The Australian Qualifications Framework Making a Difference:

A Symposium and AQF Launch

Melbourne 23 June 2011

Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International & Communities)

Flinders University

It is an honor to be invited to speak at this event marking the launch of the revised AQF framework.

The Bradley Report observed that ‘Australia was one of the first countries in the world to develop a national qualifications framework in the mid 1990s’. 

It went on to say ‘The AQF now needs to be modernized to provide an enhanced architecture and updated.’ (Bradley Report 2009 p137).

I have been asked to address two international ambitions of the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF). First, attracting international students to Australia. Second, enhancing the international career prospects of Australian and international students.

From where I stand the revised AQF will help to achieve both these goals, but there is more to be done to ensure that it does. It is the next agenda that John Dawkins spoke about this morning.

I will be speaking from the perspective of a practitioner in the field of international education, not as someone versed in the complexities of international regulation and qualifications agreements.


Another way of framing the question (in the sub-heading) is how credible is the Australian tertiary education system?

The Institute of International Education in New York recently published the results of a global survey of nearly 10,000 prospective higher education students. Its findings are disturbing. 

Just over 19% of the prospective students thought Australia had a high quality higher education system.  That is one in five prospective students across the globe.  It is a solid share of a significant international market.  My concern is Australia ranked below France (23.2%), Germany (30.7%), Canada (33.2%) the UK (49.9%) and the US (75.6%).

Quality is a key factor in students’ decisions to study in Australia. 

The International Student Survey 2010 interviewed over 36,000 higher education (HE) students and more than 5,500 vocational education and training (VET) students.  The second-ranked of the top four factors influencing the choice of where to study in Australia was the reputation of the qualification from the institution (93%).

The other three were the quality of teaching (94%), personal safety (92%), and the reputation of the institution (91%).

For the purposes of triangulation I also looked at the findings of a brand health study done for Education Adelaide that surveyed over 3,000 current and prospective students. 

The international recognition of the qualification was ranked third among the key factors in influencing a student’s decision.  The quality of education was the main factor.

The findings from both these surveys are not controversial.  The credibility and reputation of the qualification is a key factor in decisions about whether students will study in Australia.

Australian educational institutions rely on AEI’s (Australian Education International) National Office of Overseas Skills Recognition (NOOSR) Guidelines to assess the qualifications of incoming students.  The NOOSR Guidelines will need to be updated to ensure they match up with the updated AQF.

However, it is not always clear, on the basis of the evidence available to me, the precise factors that prospective students (or their parents, who are often the decision-makers) take into account in deciding the reputation or international recognition, of an Australian qualification.

In all likelihood prospective students traverse a range of considerations.  These include:

•The student’s home government’s recognition of the degree

•Professional accreditation which enables the graduate to practice

•The persuasiveness of agents and friends

Australia’s overall education reputation and ‘brand’ attributes are also influential. This is where the AQF has a role. It is generally agreed that decisions about where to study are made first about country, and then about the course and institution.

It therefore follows that it is important that the Australian brand strongly projects an accurate and defensible message about the reputation of Australian education. 

Austrade has recently announced that ‘Future Unlimited’ will be the international education tagline of the ‘Australia Unlimited’ message.  I will return to this later in my presentation.


AEI data on Australian educated international graduates living abroad in 2010 found that 81% from HE and 70% from VET were in employment (Walters 2011). 

Of those HE graduates living in Australia 73% of the HE cohort and 70% of VET graduates were employed. These are several percentage points lower than for Australian graduates, of whom 81% from HE and 74% from VET were employed.

In addition, it is useful to note that the 85% of HE graduates and 73% of VET graduates were working in a field related to their qualification. 

Overall, the figures provide an encouraging indication of the employability of international students with Australian qualifications both in Australia and abroad.

It is a good outcome, but not good enough.  Higher education graduates mostly become knowledge workers and knowledge workers are often mobile. They are entitled to know that their Australian qualifications will be recognized by future employers and professional associations, and that the qualification will enable them to enter higher levels of learning across the world.

Anecdotally I believe that at graduation Australian students are generally more concerned about the international recognition of their degrees than international students.  It is possible that the latter have thought about it well in advance of starting the degree, whereas Australian students are more inclined to think about international careers towards the end of their degrees.

The AQF provides a foundation, but just as important is the context in which it sits. I have four observations that illustrate some important issues from my perspective.

First, the AQF is part of a larger Australian quality framework that is important in providing context.  As we all know, apart from the strengthening of the AQF the Government is implementing a number of quality-related changes to tertiary education. These include the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), and the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA), which will have oversight of the existing and new QA measures.

To take one example, it has taken us some years since discussion commenced in Australia about the Europeans ‘diploma supplement’, but now the Australian Higher Education Graduation Statement is becoming a part of the QA framework.

The Graduation Statement is a record of the students’ performance, along with the bona fides of the university and a description of the Australian higher education system, including information from the AQF.  It is of particular significance in an international context where Australian qualifications are largely unknown by many prospective employers.  It will also help disseminate a much clearer statement about what it means to have an Australian degree.

Second, a 2008 report for DEEWR noted that there had been ‘relatively slow progress…in the area of recognition of qualifications between countries’ in the Asia-Pacific region (DEEWR 2008 p 3).  It also noted that many Asian Pacific countries neither have a national qualifications framework nor ‘systematic processes in place for recognizing foreign higher education qualifications between countries’ (p 3).

A similar problem exists beyond the Asia Pacific region.

Here are a few problems, from across the globe, of which I am aware. There are many instances where the recognition of Australian awards by foreign governments is based on out-of-date information that is not easily accessed by, or can be changed by, Australian educators.  There are situations where the holding back of recognition is part of a government’s management of the labour market, meaning foreign awards are not accepted.  In some cases governments differentiate between delivery modes. Some governments do not accredit on-line or distance degrees; some (the Chinese Government) don’t accept the validity of split awards offered in and out of country, if undertaken by students without high scores on university entrance tests.

In April 2010 a Saudi Arabian Embassy official in Canberra wrote a letter to his Minister saying that ‘the level of Australian universities is medium to weak except for the Group of Eight’ and asked the Minister to advise universities in that country not to send students to them. This caused panic among Saudi students in Australia.  Their future employers told them their degrees would not be recognized when they returned home. 

The Embassy has subsequently denied that any damage was done, and says it stamps the student’s transcript to endorse the degree and provides the graduates with a letter attesting to the credibility of the university. 

Third, bilateral trade agreements can put a spotlight on barriers to qualification recognition. During the negotiations leading up to the Australia-Singapore Free Trade Agreement it became well known that the law and medical degrees from a number of Australian universities (Flinders included) were not recognized in Singapore. 

As a byproduct of the FTA negotiations the Singapore government moved to recognize all medical schools in Australia, and chose to recognize at least one law school in each state (in Adelaide Flinders won the accolade).

India is another country where recognition of law qualifications is patchy, and little progress has been made.  With negotiations soon to commence on an FTA, the recognition of Australian degrees and the QA framework should be upfront on the education agenda. The same applies to other countries with which Australia is negotiating FTAs.

Fourth, the recognition of Australian awards by professional bodies has an important role.

Engineers have the Washington Accord that enables mutual recognition of qualifications between the countries that have signed the agreement. 

Accounting professional group CPA Australia operates regionally and claims to have recognition internationally, but there is no detail to substantiate the claims available on its website.

However there are a number of other discipline areas in which professional associations have a significant role, such as medicine, nursing and law, that don’t have an equivalent process to the Washington Accord. 


Summing up, from an international educator’s perspective, the most significant challenge is determining how to make the best use of the AQF and the other components of Australia’s QA framework.

To me it comes back to Brand Australia – Future Unlimited – and how we tell our education story to the world. 

If we think it through properly we can maintain a robust knowledge and education environment, as well as strengthening the education brand internationally, and thereby make Australia more attractive and enhance the credibility of Australian qualifications abroad.

The challenge is to develop and disseminate a clear and consistent message about quality.

First, quality must, and will, be embedded in ‘Future Unlimited’.

There are three critical parts to the Australian education message to the world.

•    educational outcomes; parents, and students, want careers

•    the transformative educational experience; students need and want to increase their independence, resilience, skills, and networks

•    and the quality of education, which is in part conveyed by the previous two features of education, but also includes the formal government endorsed framework to ensure quality (including the AQF)

Additional resources must be invested in the commercial rollout of the brand in the strategic markets. We don’t have a good track record based on the rollout of the previous Study in Australia brand; frankly, we skimped on investing in getting the message out.

Second, we need to step up our regional and international dialogue about the harmonization of educational qualifications. The AQF, and education quality more broadly, are central to this engagement. 

If we look at Europe, implementation of the Bologna Accord has been patchy, but it is beginning to bring together higher education institutions and systems in parts of Europe.

Australia’s strength should be its ability to improve the harmonization with the education systems of the Asia Pacific on the one hand, and North America and Western Europe on the other. The parallels within the qualifications systems of Australia and the Bologna framework are an advantage. New FTA initiatives also provide a helpful context.

But it is the Asian Pacific region that should be the priority. The Brisbane Communique, signed in 2006, initiated a dialogue around higher education frameworks and QA in the Asian Pacific region.  Judging by the DEEWR website, it seems to have run out of steam.

AUQA staff has been deeply engaged in international QA matters through both the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education, and regionally through the Asia Pacific Quality Network. TEQSA, supported by groups such as the AQF Council, now needs now to take on the responsibility of explaining tis quality system in the places where it is important to do so.

Finally, we can tell a good, strong and better story about Australian tertiary education internationally.  It will need to focus on quality, in all its manifestations, and it will need to be told with as much consistency and from as many viewpoints as we can muster. The AQF will be an important part of this task.


AEI (Australian Education International) 2010 International Student Survey 2010. Overview Report, Canberra

AEI (Australian Education International) 2008 2007 Follow-up International Student Survey – Higher Education, Canberra

Bradley Report (Australian Government) 2009 Review of Higher Education, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Chow, Patricia 2011 What International Students Think About US Higher Education: Attitudes and Perceptions of Prospective Students in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, Institute of International Education, New York

DEEWR (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations) 2008 Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications Across the Brisbane Communique Region, Scoping Study and Report commissioned by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, April 2008.

Evans, Senator the Hon Chris, 2010 The Future of Australian International Education, University of Canberra.

Walters, Colin 2011 ‘International students – returning their investment. Australia’s reform program for international education’ Going Global Conference, Hong Kong, 11 March 2011, updated 13 April 2011.