The Unique Student Identifier, or USI, was uniquely disruptive when introduced into vocational education and training in 2015. Will it be any easier for higher ed?
There’s nothing new about the Unique Student Identifier – at least to Australia’s vocational education and training (VET) providers. Having managed and reported on students using the USI since January 2015, it’s now an integral part of the VET compliance milieu and embedded in technology that supports student management.
Higher education is different. The Australian Government only recently announced the rollout of USI across higher education beginning in 2021. Though VET is usually on the receiving end of ideas tested first in higher education (think student loans), in this case higher ed providers will need to adapt using best practice insights from VET.
What can higher educators learn from the VET USI experience? And how can they ensure they transition to the USI regime at pace with a minimal amount of pain?
What’s a Unique Student Identifier (USI)?
A USI is a 10-character alphanumeric code that uniquely identifies an individual learner for life and allows a single source of truth for all accredited competencies achieved in VET studies.
Applied for just once by students undertaking study or training at a Registered Training Organisation (RTO), as an apprentice or trainee, or in a school VET program, it is carried with them across all Australian jurisdictions, providers and all nationally recognised training.
For students and educators, the USI means access to a full transcript of recognised qualifications undertaken across an individual’s learning lifetime. For regulators, training authorities and policymakers, it means more coherent data informing the development of our education system into the future.
Is the USI coming to higher education?
Yes. The Australian Government recently announced it would expand the USI regime into higher education, where it will be mandated for all providers and students.
To be rolled out in stages from early 2021, by 2023 all higher education providers will need to ensure that all of their students have a USI, whether they are new enrolments or commenced their study prior to 2021. At the same time, the Commonwealth Higher Education Student Support Number (CHESSN) will be completely phased out.
There is an expectation the USI will also be introduced into Australia’s K-12 education system in the near future, so students will carry one identifying number with them throughout their entire learning lifetime.
Why is the USI being rolled out for higher ed?
The USI has a number of stated advantages for participants in Australian education.
For students, it will provide an online, centralised record – called the USI Transcript – of all nationally recognised training. Securely housed and easily accessible, students will be able to refer to this record for different purposes, such as when applying for a job, seeking to transfer credit into new courses at other providers, or when they are about to enter a new course and need to show they meet the required pre-requisites.
For higher education providers, the use of a single identifier for the entire tertiary education journey – whether in VET, higher ed or both – will ensure information available on students will expand, potentially streamlining student management. With more and better-quality data available on students throughout their education journey, educators will be able to better service their aspirations and refine the student lifecycle.
For regulators, the USI will eventually provide a single source of truth for student interactions with the education system across Australia across different education channels. By housing and analysing USI data across cohorts of students, policymakers will be more informed about what the education journey really looks like and how they can be facilitated through measures like funding and student support measures.
What will the higher ed rollout look like?
The government is taking a staged approach to the rollout of USI across higher education. First, from 2021 all new higher education students (both domestic and onshore international) will be required to apply for or hold a USI before course census date. Students applying for new Commonwealth financial assistance will also need to use a USI from 2021. By 2023, all tertiary students will need to have a USI in order to receive their award, including those who commenced their study prior to 2021.
Will it be easy to manage USI?
That depends. While the Australian USI system is well and truly functional in 2020, the USI has been described as ‘the single most disruptive compliance requirement’ ever introduced into vocational education and training. This is a result of two factors:
- Providers in VET could enrol and deliver training to students from 2015 without a USI, but because they were no longer able to issue a Statement of Attainment or Certificate at the end of a course without one (a compliance requirement in VET-regulated training), the USI became an immediate, ultra-critical aspect of the student administration equation. Many VET providers choose to no longer proceed with enrolment until a student has a USI, because of the compliance risk of them finishing without one; and
- It is students themselves who need to apply for a USI, rather than education providers. This put it, for the large part, out of educators’ direct control.
This resulted in immediate and widespread impacts on tried and tested workflows developed over time to manage student admissions and admin. In just one example, short course admissions were put under stress. With the requirement for a fast turnaround at the front-end, the insertion of new steps around obtaining and verifying a USI slowed down the onboarding and enrolment of students. While longer courses like those that dominate higher ed had more time, it still caused disruption, with new processes and communications needed to manage USI with the required efficiency.
The current USI experience
The VET market’s use and reporting of USI is now relatively mature. After five years of students applying for USIs, and providers collecting, verifying and reporting using the USI, the initial headaches that came with another ‘number’ requirement during the admissions process have been minimised. Much of that is enabled by Student Management Systems like JR Plus, that can automate much of the USI process.
For example, using a Student Management System like JR Plus, education providers can locate an existing USI if they have certain information about a student, verify a USI when acquired through direct integration with the government’s USI web service, and even facilitate the creation of a USI themselves in collaboration with individual students through the system or student self-service portal, enhancing provider management.
This results in advantages for education providers. For example, the verification of student details and identities against the USI record ensures that key details they have for particular students (like name, date of birth, and gender) are correct, and that the individual in question exists in other government databases. Providers also have the growing advantage of being able to access (with permission) the USI record of someone singing up, making the Credit Transfer process and student profiling easier and more valuable.
How can technology help with USI?
Student management technology built to understand and operate efficiently within a USI environment will be critical to higher education providers looking to navigate this compliance transition from 2021. While the launch of USI into VET required technology providers to develop customised solutions alongside the staged rollout, this time around higher education providers have the benefit of fully-fledged, USI-capable offerings like JR Plus that are able to manage the full set of USI requirements off-the-shelf.
For example, the JR Plus Student Management System can comprehensively service the end-to-end student management requirements of higher educators, including all USI requirements. It includes a centralised USI Manager that includes a single consolidated view of all USI activity so higher education providers can track and action follow-ups using in-built workflows as needed. Fully integrated with the USI Registry, it can also interact with all open web services to make USI management simple.
USI: Past, present and future
The USI system as it exists in VET today is far from perfect. One drawback is that, at the time of writing, the USI data accessible to students in their USI Transcript often lags real-time learning activity, and can appear out of date when students log-in to view or print. This is a result of RTOs only being required to report quarterly. (This is unlikely to be the case in higher ed, which has already adopted event-driven reporting with TCSI).
Likewise, the USI will for some time remain only a patchy reflection of someone’s true learning journey. Though the USI will expand to encompass learning through higher ed, it will not capture the spectrum of qualifications that our existing workforce have already obtained prior to the USI’s introduction into both tertiary education markets. This makes it of more value to younger learners who are in the earliest stages of their careers.
However, we can expect the USI will be a force for positive change in the medium-to-long-term; by beginning to bridge the gap between higher ed and VET, the USI brings what have until now been largely two separate channels for learning into closer alignment. This can only serve to benefit providers and students, as workforce realities and employability outcomes rise to prominence as more powerful influencers on the role and conduct of Australian education.
The power of the 10-character USI code will also rise in time. As more students (from K-12 right through to tertiary education) enter and complete learning and training that is captured by the USI registry, educators of all types, including higher educators, will have more information available to them. They will be able to enhance their services for the learning generations of the future, while making their student experience increasingly personalised and relevant.