From education to employment

Formalising the informal?

Stuart Martin

Paul Grainger’s 25th April article exploring the role that micro-credentials can play in the economy and lifelong learning was an interesting take on their use. Whilst I agreed with a lot of his arguments there were some elements of his article that I’d like to challenge and provide an alternative viewpoint for.

“Of course, micro-credentials will never replace carefully thought-through, formal vocational qualifications. But they can meet both an economic and personal need, particularly at times of crisis or rapid change.”

“The micro-credential draws upon relevant parts of an existing course and the professional expertise of those who deliver the course, both qualified lecturers and industrial experts.”

Micro-credentials are NOT competition to macro-credentials

Micro-credentials are not and should not be seen as a competitor to macro-credentials (qualifications), they are a different beast entirely. The most widely accepted purpose and intention of micro-credentials is that they are primarily used to upskill and/or reskill people already in work, with a focus on a particular skill set which can be learned in a shorter period than a full qualification.

One of the benefits of a micro-credential is its small size. When in development, timeframes are shorter and there is more agility with being able to update them, maintaining currency. Due to the size constraints, the training has to be focused on what the learner needs to learn at that moment for that particular set of skills.

Drawing upon relevant parts of an existing course to create micro-credentials becomes problematic. Having elements of the same course both as a qualification and a micro-credential begin to lead to issues of duplication and currency and move away from the real purpose of micro-credentials. There are some who have created policies to ensure this division, in New Zealand for instance, micro-credentials will not be accepted on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework if the content already exists as part of a qualification.

“There are, at present, attempts to formalize, and so undermine, the spirit of micro-credentials.”

Micro-credentials to date have been varied in their structure and design

Micro-credentials to date have been varied in their structure and design, without a widely accepted definition, limiting the value of credentials in areas of the world where they are not formalised. To best utilise micro-credentials there needs to be boundaries, and a genuine and formal understanding of micro-credentials for them to mean anything. Formalising micro-credentials doesn’t undermine them, it gives them value and improves their validity with a formalised and recognised structure.

There isn’t just one way to formalise micro-credentials: micro-credentials can be added to a national qualifications framework where the learner can earn credits and potentially funding too. With micro-credentials being on a national framework there is a stronger chance of international recognition as well as domestic respect for, and acceptance of, what the learner has achieved. An alternative method of formalising is via industry.

Instead of being accredited on a national framework, it could be accredited by an industry group for instance – recognising the value of the learning, ideally via the group being involved in the development and/or quality assuring the credential. Both methods provide an assurance by a recognised body that the credential has tangible value, assuring employers that the workers who hold it have a certain set of provable skills and at the same time assures the learner that it is a valid credential to undertake and will help them in their career.

“Towards the end of the pandemic, I was invited to a city-wide meeting of universities to develop micro-credentials to help support the changing city economy. Sadly there was no talk of employers’ needs of learners’ competencies. The discussion kept reverting to the value of ‘units’, and who would accept whose accreditation, wrapping the whole concept up in the bureaucracy of the assessment establishment.”

Micro-credentials have only been utilised by universities

To date in the UK, micro-credentials have only been utilised by universities. Universities do use credentials differently to others, usually giving them credits for completion, and in some countries, learners can complete micro-credentials to go towards their degree which is quite different to the upskilling and reskilling which forms the majority of micro-credentials. As with any type of course or qualification, there are variations with how credentials can be used. Universities can and should be able to adapt their use to suit them as long as the main purpose of them is embedded.

Likewise, micro-credentials can be adapted and utilised by awarding bodies, vocational providers etc in the way that best suits their learners and industries. At its basest level, a micro-credential is a short course (shorter than a qualification), which has an element of assessment to be able to showcase that the learner has learned what they need to have, features learning outcomes (to best identify what is being learned) and are created to help someone either in their job or to help them get a role. Apart from that, how different actors decide to utilise micro-credentials should be up to them.

Assessment should however be a mandatory element of every micro-credential

The appropriate amount of assessment to include in a piece of training can be difficult to articulate, assessment should however be a mandatory element of every micro-credential. Without assessment to be able to prove that a learner can showcase/apply the learnings, the value of the credential is limited as where is the proof that the learner has learned anything without assessment? How can the employer know?

I do agree with Grainger that the needs of employers should form a part of each and every micro-credential. Whilst universities should be able to adapt what a micro-credentials is for, at its heart, a micro-credential is to help someone get a job- without the involvement of employers/industry, the chances of that credential helping with that are reduced. Universities need to consider whether what they are calling micro-credentials fit the definition of one, if they are in reality just smaller courses than their typical university ones, but still just there to form part of a degree then they should be renamed, as it will just add more confusion to an already confused micro-credential system.

“Their validity lies not in the established excellence of the vocational awarding bodies, but in the local and regional reputations of the delivering organization, mainly FE Colleges and Universities. Micro-credentials need to be local, flexible, employment-related and delivered by competent, locally recognized professionals. The formal stuff can always come later.”

Validity of a micro-credential is in part established by the awarding bodies/developers

The validity of a micro-credential is in part established by the awarding bodies/developers. By having a credential by a recognised and assured providers with rigorous quality assurance is one of the reasons why people will choose to take a certain credential over another. The reputation of a developer is also one reason why an employer could hire a certain individual, if the employer trusts the qualifications/credentials from one provider over another, they’ll value that worker more.

I completely agree that micro-credentials must be employment/industry-focused, there is no point in developing or delivering a micro-credential which industry doesn’t want or need. I would however caution with ‘local’; if the credentials become too localised and are only applicable to one college, one area, then development costs will be higher (leading to higher costs to the learner), but also, where is the long-term value in a worker undertaking a very localised credential which isn’t portable?

Flexibility in micro-credentials

When talking about flexibility, flexibility in delivery is entirely appropriate to adapt to what best suits the learners. Flexibility in assessment/skills however should be discouraged. One of the ways in which a credential holds validity is by the understanding that every learner who achieves it holds the same set of skills and had to achieve a certain set of activities to earn it. Flexibility in terms of more regular reviews than qualifications should also be encouraged.

New Zealand for instance mandates that all the micro-credentials on their framework must be reviewed for currency and continued need every 1-3 years. Without some type of recognition, be that nationally, by industry, or at awarding body level, the value of that piece of learning is reduced. As I mentioned above there are different types of formalising, but at least one of those for me would be essential to have a credential of worth.

There is a lot for the UK to do in the world of micro-credentials. To date there is no national policy or any wording by industrial groups in any of the four nations defining a micro-credential or providing an understanding or guidance for awarding bodies, employers or learners.

To increase the validity of credentials there needs to be more done in this space. By formalising the informal, the quality of credentials will improve, along with being able to better fulfil the needs of industry as well as provide workers with clear routes to upskill and reskill.

By Stuart Martin, Senior Consultant, Skills Group

Response from Paul Grainger

There is nothing in Stuart Martin’s piece with which I would disagree. It is an excellent description of how micro-credentials might assimilate into a qualifications system, particularly a regime in countries similar to New Zealand.  Our difference is one of emphasis.

Some years ago, I undertook a study of the curricula of high-performing PISA regimes.  What was very clear is that, internationally, there is little disagreement on what is contained within a 14-19 academic curriculum: mother tongue, sciences, maths, humanities and so forth. Conversely there is very little global agreement on what constitutes a 14 – 19 vocational curriculum. My more recent work with the G20 has reinforced this conclusion.

Vocational education is closely defined by national, and regional cultures and economies. Some regimes take their vocational qualifications more or less directly from industry. At the other end of the scale some regimes only accept a very academic approach, not permitting anyone without a degree to teach. This latter can be very harmful to the economy, as many teachers have no practical experience and thus lack credibility.

The UK has a highly centralised system, with the freedom of validating bodies to respond to developing economic practices constrained. The introduction of T levels, for example, has been imposed by central government, and facilitated by withdrawing funding from the more flexible, and popular BTECs, which had themselves endured a long process of unnecessary standardisation.

A large economy, such as the UK, contains significant variation. While I acknowledge that there is value in transferability, most young people choose to enter work in their own region and join the local economy.  Some regional economies badly need regeneration, or dynamic responses to the post-covid world. Micro-credentials can support regional variations, can provide flexibility for a changing economy, and be very near to employer needs and students’ aspirations. The result is not a tidy system. It isn’t neat, and makes comparability difficult, but it can be of immense value in delivering the right skills in the very places where they are needed.

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