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Credit-based pathways in tertiary education

Credit-based pathways in tertiary education

Research 5 minute read

Justin Brown reports on credit-based pathways between the VET and higher education sectors, and the barriers to and enablers of their use.

Credit-based pathways in tertiary education

Good pathways within tertiary education can produce economic and social benefits by providing access to quality higher education and training to give people the skills they need – and industry and employers want – and the knowledge to build careers and create jobs.

An ACER review of the existing research literature and analysis of available data has sought to identify and better understand the barriers and issues associated with pathways and credit arrangements between VET and higher education.

The review identified three main categories of credit-based pathways:

  • Articulation: the planned and directed student pathways set out by institutions that involves moving from one qualification level to a higher one, for example from diploma to degree.
  • Credit transfer: a self-directed pathway within and across a range of different qualifications and institutions.
  • Recognition of prior learning (RPL): a credit arrangement for both formal and informal learning through a student-centred pathway based on individualised assessments.

Credit-based pathways within tertiary education most commonly involve pathways from VET to higher education. The most recent data suggest that the proportion of domestic undergraduate students admitted on the basis of a prior VET award, either complete or incomplete, is now around 10 to 12 per cent nationally. This varies markedly across institutions, though, with a 2013 study reporting that one-third of Australia’s universities provide two-thirds of the VET to higher education pathways.

Pathways from higher education to VET, while less common, are also important for upskilling, workforce development and lifelong learning. As a share of total government-subsidised students, the share of VET students who also hold a degree has ranged between five and seven per cent on average since 2003.


A significant barrier to systematic and sector-wide credit transfer arrangements is the perceived mismatch between competency-based VET courses and knowledge-based higher education courses.

A 2009 report noted that, while many VET qualifications may be based on the same competency outcomes in training packages, VET providers differ in the teaching, learning and assessment processes that they use for the same qualification. Similarly, degrees differ between universities: the first year of a business degree in one university does not automatically equate to the first year in another university. This makes it difficult to make professional judgements about equivalence or comparability in a systematic and replicable way.

Similarly, a 2012 report to the then NSW Board of Vocational Education and Training found that four universities granted different levels of credit towards their Bachelor of Early Childhood Education for a VET Diploma in Children’s Services. Such inconsistencies in the level of credit granted by higher education institutions for prior learning likely make it difficult, from a student’s perspective, to navigate the different pathways to tertiary education.

Meanwhile, a 2011 review of pathways from VET to higher education in Queensland identified a lack of planning or allowance by senior management for the staff, time and cost involved in developing articulation and credit transfer arrangements. It also highlighted the differences in fee structures between the sectors as well as faculty-driven ‘silo’ structures and restrictive administrative arrangements as further barriers.

Differing policy, governance, quality assurance, regulatory, funding and reporting frameworks for each sector also need to be considered as potential impediments to seamless articulation and credit transfer arrangements between the VET and higher education sectors.


A review of research on ways to improve pathways in tertiary education suggests that ‘seamless’ credit-based pathways rely on a set of common ingredients, including:

  • leadership and coordination between institutions;
  • clear and accessible information for prospective and current students;
  • clear, simple and timely administration processes;
  • appropriate practices for updating pathways as qualifications change; and,
  • fair, equitable, consistent and evidence-based arrangements.

From a student perspective, a seamless pathway is one which prepares them for the transition. For VET to higher education pathways, this includes equipping students with the academic knowledge and skills they need in their field, and providing appropriate support services.

Improving pathways will also rely upon the capture and reporting of accurate information on what pathways are available, how pathways are accessed and by whom.

Data limitations

The available data on VET to higher education pathways are limited in that they can omit students admitted on the basis of their school results, despite also having VET experience. They also do not identify the type of VET program or institution that was the basis of admission into higher education, and the circumstances in which credit is awarded.

Similarly, available data on higher education to VET pathways do not disclose the timing of higher education or the field of study, nor do they reveal why students chose to undertake the VET qualification. In addition, neither data sets provide an understanding of whether particular pathways are preferred by students or are needed from a workforce development perspective but are not being offered.

As the Australian Qualification Framework Council notes in its Qualifications Pathways Policy, if governments are unsure of how and when students move between qualifications and sectors, the level of demand from graduates of one type of qualification for entry to another or the success rate of students who make transfers, it becomes difficult to identify the resources required if governments and institutions are to improve student transfers. Nevertheless, the recent introduction of unique student identifiers should improve the capacity of the system to quantify and track cross-sectoral flows into the future.

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