From education to employment

The Value of Credentials

Stuart Martin

Stuart explores how micro-credentials are currently being utilised within the UK and discusses how the vocational education sector is currently not as engaged as the higher education space. Stuart provides a way forward for the sector to more fully engage and explores the benefits of doing so.

Micro-Credentials in the UK Higher Education Sector

Micro-credentials has been a term de jour for years now, second only to AI in terms of discussions, it’s a much misinterpreted and misunderstood term. To add to the endless and conflicting definitions out there, I interpret a micro-credential as a piece of learning shorter than a qualification, comprising skills that the labour market is in need of, and usually has learning outcomes and summative assessment.

In the UK higher education sector there is some recognition of the term, and credits for micro-credentials. The sector however is utilising them in different ways from just splitting courses they already have up into smaller chunks to sell, to developing specific pieces of training for workers. What is missing in the UK sector is the application of micro-credentials in the vocational education sector. One of the biggest complaints from industry is that the training and qualifications coming out are out of date and can never stay up to date. Many companies, especially in the data and IT sectors prefer workers to come to them without qualifications and train them in-house so that they don’t have that issue. Micro credentials, as much smaller pieces of learning can thus be more agile and therefore, much more relevant, whether this is achieved via an official definition or industry taking the lead and creating value their own way is the biggest question at present.   

Intriguingly, New Zealand’s micro-credential sector is mostly vocational in content, in contrast to most countries where the higher education sector is dominant. New Zealand is also one of the few countries in which the vocational sector has a formal micro-credential definition under which all micro-credentials are quality assured by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA). The micro-credentials are credit-based, part of the New Zealand Qualifications Framework, can be at any level of the framework and are on the NZ micro-credential register. To be approved they must show industry and/or community need, and the credential must be reviewed every 1-3 years for currency. By having them setup this way, industries understand what micro-credentials are and the quality assurance and regulation embedded show that they have worth and thus make them attractive to the learner to undertake and the employer to hire.

Opportunities for Vocational Education

The vocational education sector has a huge opportunity to build on what they currently have and create more. This isn’t a call to replace the apprenticeships, the T-levels or the myriad of other qualifications that exist. Indeed, in the New Zealand model, micro-credentials need to comprise of material not already in qualifications, placing micro-credentials as something else, something additional. Most people will have to change jobs multiple times over their careers, and they need to have and be able to learn and showcase these skillsets to help them. Micro-credentials could be a gamechanger for vocational education: regular top-ups of education over the course of someone’s career, whether it be new learning or recognition of prior learning, there is so much potential.

The Distinction Between ‘Short Courses’ and ‘Micro-Credentials

Whilst short courses have been in existence for decades, the difference between a ‘short course’ and a ‘micro-credential’ is in the wider understanding of, and value of the term. There are endless short courses issued by a wide variety of organisations online and in institutions, but do all of them help someone with their career? Do they make a worker more employable? It depends significantly on the issuing organisation, the quality behind it and the recognition that an employer/industry gives it. If a learner takes a short course online with a global website that doesn’t have proper assessment or quality assurance then does that hold value to an employer? Is it worth that learner to have paid potentially hundreds of pounds to achieve it? With more credentials and training out there, the more that an employer needs to determine what holds value to the organisation and what doesn’t. By tying the term micro-credential to a quality assurance based, industry engaged model, it can increase the value of these pieces of training and better support the industry, and the learners. 

The positive aspect of there not being an official definition yet is that there are now a whole host of examples of national micro-credentials policies in existence. Indeed, we are starting to see a second generation of micro-credential policies being developed, Ontario in Canada for instance have just published their recommended micro-credential policy, developed from the lessons learned from previous policies and processes. It is therefore a good time to build a system based off of the lessons from others.

Addressing Skills Gaps in the Industry

With low unemployment and skills gaps, industry cannot just hope that people will turn up with the skills that they require. Industry will need to upskill and reskill the existing workforce to fill these gaps. By working with the vocational education sector, creating rigorous, quality assured, but agilely developed credentials these skill gaps could start to be remedied within months. If national regulators or government will not define a micro-credential, then it will need to come down to awarding bodies and industry to take the lead and do what is required to support the industry and the learners. Micro-credentials exist and it is time for the UK to take up the challenge.

By Stuart Martin, founder of the educational consultancy George Angus Consulting.

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