This new research paper from European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP) looks at a range of issues related to micro-credentials, their roles, development and use in national systems in Europe.

The publication explores three major questions: first, how are micro-credentials referred to in the overall policy discussions and strategy papers on national qualification system development, and what are their objectives and roles in national qualifications and credentials systems? In addition, what are the main drivers behind introducing micro-credentials? Second, in what ways are micro-credentials linked to national qualification systems and finally what impacts are micro-credentials having on qualification systems, and what opportunities and challenges do they present?

The research paper notes that:

“In recent years, there has been an acceleration in the availability and use of micro credentials in the labour market, raising questions about their relationship to VET and to qualification systems. The proliferation of micro-credentials of different types across various sectors, occupations, education sectors and levels and countries, along with variations between countries in the nature of qualification systems – which are undergoing change – make this a complex landscape to research and analyse.”

As we know, there has been an increasing focus on them here in Australia so, are there things we can learn from the European experience? We started this discussion in a VDC News article in August last year.

Recognising qualifications, skills and capabilities

Qualifications, the paper points out, play an important role in society. “They express what individuals know, understand and can do, and have a considerable influence on employment prospects and overall life chances.” But this is not the whole story: “qualifications … sit within a wider social, economic and historical context within which skills recognition takes place.” The paper also states that: “micro-credentials can be seen as another means of recognising skills, though a distinctive and significant one,” and “are dependent on the economic and social attributes that are ascribed to them by their users”.

Drivers for introducing micro-credentials

Micro-credentials introduce a wider range of learning pathways and opportunities. In addition, they “are seen to be fit for purpose [when they recognise such needs as] “addressing the needs of the labour market, lifelong learning, upskilling and reskilling, recognising prior learning, and widening access to a greater variety of learners.” In some cases, they can be recognised in legal documents, and this might include industrial awards in Australia, for example. Their “greater flexibility and … suitability for building sector- or occupation-specific skills (reskilling/upskilling) in order to respond to the changing needs of industry may be particular advantage.” Potentially, they can be nimble, but recognition of them and trust in them are important too.

Links to qualification systems

Micro-credentials can be misunderstood and seen as a form of modulization. The question is whether modulization is seen as a bad thing, or something that has a value in a broader conception of VET’s ‘qualifications’ and roles. However, another key feature is “the development of mechanisms to validate non-formal or informal learning.” It’s all bound up with the nature of qualification frameworks and how well they work and the extent to which they can accommodate and recognise all forms of valid learning. On approach is to use credit systems, the report suggests. This is possible in 22 EU countries. Another is their use in RPL processes. However, these both require high levels of trust and having respected, transparent and quality assured processes in place. The best approach, perhaps is that:

“Accredited and quality-assured microcredentials are more likely to be accepted across institutions and sectors, which points to a need to establish a common terminology to describe microcredentials (e.g. learning outcomes, level, volume).”

Impacts, opportunities and challenges

The opportunities and challenges presented to qualification systems by micro-credentials can be seen as a set of tensions, the paper suggests, “between flexibility and stability on the one hand, and between supply-led and demand-driven qualifications on the other.” Further, the report points out that:

 “Microcredentials tend to be a flexible, demand-driven response to the need for skills in the labour market, but they can lack the same trust and recognition enjoyed by full qualifications. In terms of whether and how they might be accommodated within qualification systems, they can pose important questions about how to guarantee their value and currency without undermining both their own flexibility and the stability and dependability of established qualifications.”

Moreover, “microcredentials are better able to reflect and respond to the changing needs of the labour market by providing short, quick, tailored skills development. However, these benefits can come at the expense of quality control and transparency regarding the trustworthiness of both the credential and the provider.”

In summary, the challenges are that:

  • An “oversupply of microcredentials can cause devaluation and confuse stakeholders
  • Microcredentials that are part of the formal system need to adhere to the same standards”
  • They can shift the preference for short duration learning over full qualifications.

The opportunities are:

  • “Making learning more flexible, adaptable and relevant
  • Providing better lifelong and life-wide learning opportunities
  • Better responding to the needs of the labour market and individuals.”

These opportunities and challenges are familiar but need to be balanced effectively to make the best use of these forms of credentials. The paper suggests that the main dimensions being currently considered in Europe include:

(a) “defining microcredentials (even though a broad definition exists at EU level, countries are making more detailed decisions on what elements microcredentials need to possess);

(b) deciding where microcredentials could be most useful within their national qualification systems (e.g. formal, non-formal and/or informal learning; VET, HE and/or adult education);

(c) indicating the necessary conditions for the inclusion of microcredentials into national qualification systems

(d) reviewing the laws and regulations relating to education and training, [and]

(e) establishing a link between microcredentials and existing offers.”