Today’s question relates to qualifications for paramedics and a more complex issue of university regulation. Today’s correspondent is:
… in a similar situation to many other practicing paramedics. We have completed either a private or public ambulance service diploma in paramedical science. The private using a VET [Vocational Education and Training] stream. I joined a bridging program at ECU [Edith Cowan University, Western Australia] to bridge to the degree but have found myself repeating copious amounts of information, and that adds expense and time off work to the bridging process. I have raised this concern with the process at the university to the course director.
The ECU bridging program was chosen ahead of other university courses on its strength at the time having a relationship with SJA WA [St John Ambulance Australia (Western Australia)]. The university lost that relationship, and so quite a few students (with diploma’s and already practicing) only had an option to change university to work again on road as a Curtain University [also in Western Australia] designated student AO [Ambulance Officer].
That required a further 6 months minimum of full time study and 12 or more part time study for this group. Neither university accepts each other’s courses as equivalent. The accreditation for a 2012/13 Diploma apparently holds less RPL [Recognition of Prior Learning] than a current Diploma (that is my VET Diploma dated 2013 is not recognised by the university as equivalent to a VET Diploma in 2018). When I applied for 2 additional units of advanced standing, that request was denied. I am in one of those units now, and quite frankly, this is a waste of time and money. I covered this over 5 years ago in as much detail. A delay in processing my application meant I also missed entry into the first unit that looks not to be a copious repeat of info. Other universities UTAS [University of Tasmania], UVIC [I assume this means Victoria University, Australia; not University of Victoria, Canada], CQU [Central Queensland University] all have shorter better aligned bridging programs. Universities have a rule of only accepting 150 credit points for RPL. So I have progressed beyond that and so changing university would be another setback, even for a short course.
For a mature age student, not living at home off the subsidy of parents, it appeared worth the trade-off. Having lost the SJA relationship contract, it has damaged our position. Come time of registration this year, I fear we may not even be able to work. We will go from practicing AO’s with 10 years’ experience, working at paramedic level for 5+ years, to University students in a course that discriminates against out group.
An AO by national standards means a Cert IV in ambulance. Which I had in 2007. There is no grandfathering clause here.
I have raised this concern. I have cited estoppel as a potential worthy area of law, and I am seeking some understanding of my legal position. The course has been changed to our detriment, with no grandfathering clause. The course is not the promise that it was, and raising concern of repeating copious amounts of information and training at significant cost, has effectively caused damage to my professional position as a paramedic. Can you help me understand the situation legally? Has the University breached any laws?
This is an unfortunate position(though perhaps not as unfortunate as those students who enrolled in James Cook University’s Bachelor of Health Science (Physician Assistant) – see Michael Atkin ‘Why have a course where there’s no outcome?’ James Cook University under fire for healthcare degree, ABC News (Online) 8 Feb 2018)).
Let me deal with my correspondent’s concerns in turn. First the claim that the course ‘discriminates’ against the group. I’m not sure what that means or what type of discrimination is meant. To say something discriminates against a group implies that it treats people who are relevantly alike, differently. I can’t see that ECU is ‘discriminating’ against one group of students ie treating one group differently to another as I don’t know what the ‘other’ group may be. That different universities have different rules isn’t ‘discrimination’ it’s the market and the design of the ‘product’. In any event discrimination is unlawful only if it’s on prohibited grounds (gender, sexual preference, age, marital status, religious beliefs etc). My correspondent’s used the term ‘discriminate’ but I don’t think that’s relevant.
The university sector is largely unregulated. Universities are privileged to be self-accrediting that is they determine what goes into their courses. Some courses such as law and medicine do have to be endorsed by professional bodies in order to allow the graduates to seek professional registration but others do not.
The Council of Ambulance Authorities has accredited paramedic degrees to say that the degrees will be accepted for employment by the member agencies (see http://www.caa.net.au/paramedic-education). This is not the same as accrediting course for registration as that will be a matter for the Paramedicine Board – (Health Practitioner Regulation National Law s 48).
There is some regulation of universities. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act 2011 (Cth) says that a higher education provider must be registered and courses of study must be accredited, but Australian universities ‘are authorised to self-accredit their courses of study’ (s 4). The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency [TEQSA] does publish standards including a standard on ‘Student Participation and Attainment’. That standard says (at [1.2]):
TEQSA supports granting of credit for prior learning, and will need to be satisfied that this is guided by institutionally approved policies and evidence-based procedures that are applied transparently and consistently, with explicit (written) outcomes for credit decisions provided to students… We expect providers to take a positive attitude to the award of credit wherever practicable, but we must also be satisfied that the granting of credit will not disadvantage students (e.g. by admitting students who are insufficiently prepared to undertake the level of higher education required) or diminish the integrity of the qualification awarded. This could occur, for example, where the award of credit would result in a disproportionate amount of the program representing levels of education/experience below that of the qualification offered, such as a Masters degree program comprising, in effect, predominantly undergraduate content.
There is also a standard on ‘Representation, information and information management’. This standard is intended to asses:
- whether the providers’ representations (whether directly or through other parties) about themselves and the course(s) of study they offer are accurate, ethical and not misleading in their claims (7.1)
- whether there is sufficient publicly available information to assist students in making informed choices about selecting a course of study, to enable effective and informed participation in a chosen course of study and to resolve grievances if necessary, including the particular needs of international students studying in Australia (7.2)
The Australian Qualifications Framework [AQF] is meant to set out minimum standards for qualifications ranging from Certificate I to Doctoral degrees. According to the AQF:
The purpose of the Certificate IV qualification type is to qualify individuals who apply a broad range of specialised knowledge and skills in varied contexts to undertake skilled work and as a pathway for further learning…
Certificate IV qualifications must be designed and accredited to enable graduates to demonstrate the learning outcomes expressed as knowledge, skills and the application of knowledge and skills specified in the level 4 criteria and the Certificate IV descriptor. Certificate IV.
A Bachelor’s degree is a level 7 qualification.
The purpose of the Bachelor Degree qualification type is to qualify individuals who apply a broad and coherent body of knowledge in a range of contexts to undertake professional work and as a pathway for further learning…
Bachelor Degree qualifications must be designed and accredited to enable graduates to demonstrate the learning outcomes expressed as knowledge, skills and the application of knowledge and skills specified in the level 7 criteria and the Bachelor Degree descriptor.
There are different expectations with respect to knowledge, skills and ability to act autonomously with level 4 and level 7 qualifications (see Australian Qualifications Framework Council, Australian Qualifications Framework (2nd ed, January 2013), pp. 12-13).
What follows, and consistent with the TEQSA standard on Student Participation and Attainment, universities must carefully consider whether learning for a level 4 qualification equates to the standard required for a level 7 qualification and must not give credit where to do so would ‘diminish the integrity of the qualification awarded … for example, where the award of credit would result in a disproportionate amount of the program representing levels of education/experience below that of the qualification offered’ in this case by offering a Bachelor’s degree that was made up, in effect, of predominantly Cert IV content. Making those assessments is a matter for each university.
It is also true that universities impose limits on the amount of credit for prior study that will be granted. A university does not want a student to complete all but one unit of a degree at another institution and then transfer to complete one unit and get a degree badged from a more prestigious institution so whether that’s transferring from a lower ranked regional university to a ‘Group of 8’ institution (recognising at once that university rankings are pretty meaningless except to universities that rank well and also acknowledging that I work at a ‘Group of 8’ member institution) or from a VET course to a Bachelor’s degree.
It follows that I can’t comment on whether ECU’s approach to RPL for diploma studies is reasonable or not. What I can say is that ‘explicit (written) outcomes for credit decisions’ must be provided to students.
I also note that a major factor in choosing ECU was their link with St John (WA) that no longer exists. That does not mean there was inaccurate or misleading material at the time my correspondent enrolled but it does meant that there will need to be some alternative placement program to allow students to complete the requirements of the degree.
Universities are, like any industry, also bound by general legal principles including contract law and can be held to account if they fail to deliver the product that they promise with professional care and skill.
What’s to be done
There is lots that can be done. Where there is a written decision on RPL that can be appealed. There will be appeal processes in the university rules to review decisions made by university officers. It’s a matter of finding those rules and following them. There will also be provision for external review. If it were in the ACT I would suggest starting with the Australian Capital Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ACAT). I don’t know the jurisdictional rules of the State Administrative Tribunal (SAT) in Western Australia but that would be a good starting point.
TEQSA can receive complaints by domestic students (https://www.teqsa.gov.au/complaints-domestic-students) where there is an alleged breach of the Higher Education Standards Framework (which includes the standards quoted above).
For the best way to deal with it my correspondent needs legal advice from a Western Australia lawyer with knowledge of the tertiary education sector. The starting point should be the ECU Student Guild.
Do you actually need a degree?
That review of tertiary regulation is required to address my correspondent’s concerns, but the more interesting question is why does a person ‘with 10 years’ experience, working at paramedic level for 5+ years’ think they need a degree?
My correspondent says:
An AO by national standards means a Cert IV in ambulance. Which I had in 2007. There is no grandfathering clause here.
But if ‘here’ is Western Australia there is no ambulance or paramedic legislation at all. The qualifications to practice as a paramedic are determined by the employers, that is they can employ whoever they want. It may be that my correspondent’s employer has determined a degree is required but that is not a general rule, others may take a different view.
I note that St John (WA) says that for employment as a student ambulance officer one needs to be eligible to enter the Curtin University program. For graduate employment a candidate needs a ‘Bachelor Degree of Health Science – Major in Paramedicine or equivalent’. Whether they entertain the notion that a Cert IV and experience is equivalent is a matter for them. Other jobs listed on seek.com don’t require a degree for a paramedic.
The inference is that my correspondent wants to work for St John (WA) and for that position a degree is required.
Here registration may help. Once registration is in place one would anticipate that the qualifications for employment will be that the candidate is registered or eligible to be registered as a paramedic. Paramedic registration does have grandparenting provisions. For the first three years after the introduction of registration, a person will be eligible for registration if they:
… satisfy the [Paramedicine] Board that you are qualified or competent to be registered by:
holding an adequate qualification or having completed adequate training
holding a qualification and have also completed further study, training or supervised practice required by the Board
completing five years of acceptable practice in the last 10 years.
The grandparenting clause does not say that after three years only the approved degrees will be required for further registration. It says that these no-degree qualifications will be accepted for general registration for the first three years. A person who is registered in that time will be able to renew their registration without having to obtain an approved degree qualification: see Paramedicine Board Regulation of paramedics under the National Scheme (13 April 2018), in particular the answers to ‘How will ‘grandparenting’ of existing paramedics work?’ and ‘What happens if I am granted registration under the grandparenting provisions but I let my registration lapse?’ See also:
- ‘Grandparenting’ paramedic qualifications (April 26, 2017); and
- Qualifications for registration as a Paramedic (February 8, 2017).
So there may not be ‘grandparenting’ provisions in WA today, but there will be once paramedic registration is in place.
It’s not for me to say whether my correspondent will satisfy the Board that he or she is eligible for registration but one would expect that with their claimed qualifications and experience that they would be, in which case the degree is irrelevant.
I can’t say whether the university has breached any laws simply on the basis of the information I have been given. I can say that there are ways to seek review of the University’s decisions and to raise concerns with the University and an agency such as TEQSA. My correspondent should seek specific advice from a WA lawyer or the ECU Student Guild.
The more interesting question is why a person ‘with 10 years’ experience, working at paramedic level for 5+ years’ think they need a degree. The grandparenting provisions in the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law are intended to ensure that ‘… a person who is working or has worked as a paramedic’ can be registered ‘even if the person does not hold an ‘approved qualification’ for registration’. As the Paramedicine Board says:
The intent of having grandparenting arrangements is to ensure that practitioners who are legitimately practising the profession have a way of seeking registration and are not disadvantaged because they are not recent graduates. This is especially important because no state or territory in Australia currently has a registration system in place that could ‘automatically’ transition state and territory registered paramedics into the National Scheme.
My correspondent should carefully consider whether or not he or she will need a degree for registration purpose.