The bright horizon of micro-credentials
Stackable degrees, new learning pathways, the leveraging of AI in classrooms – these are all trending topics and instruments in higher education. However, it is micro-credentials that have been pedaled as the cure-all solution to the current issues of the sector – such as inadaptability to change, lack of relevance to the labour market demand and societal challenges etc.
Do your employees need upskilling? Do you want to supplement your degree to better showcase your employability? Is your current job at risk of automation? Micro-credentials appear to have all the answers and they have been supported as such at EU level. In June 2022 the Council of the EU recommended that EU member states develop measures to create a micro-credential ecosystem by the end of 2023.
With the rise of online learning giants such as Coursera and Udemy, micro-credentials look to be here to stay, so how can we best utilise them to better shape the landscape of higher education?
What is a micro-credential?
Micro-credentials are used to certify the learning outcomes of short-term, education or training experiences, and signal one’s proficiency to employers (EC, 2022). Typically offered by universities, VETs, or private institutions, micro-credentials are cheaper, more flexible and accessible than a traditional degree program. Course options can range from transversal ‘human’ skills such as leadership and teamwork, to more career-specific options like learning Python or R programming languages.
UIIN too, recognises the value of micro-credentials in lifelong learning and signaling these learning outcomes to your network. Participants in UIIN’s training program University-Business Cooperation Skills, aimed at academics, professional staff, and businesses, can obtain a unique micro-credential upon completion of the course.
Some advantages of micro-credentials include:
- Involvement of industry: they offer an opportunity for knowledge exchange between industry actors and providers/HEIs in the development and delivery of the micro-credentials. This can result in greater relevancy for the job market as well as further opportunities for university-industry collaboration. One example is Siemens partnering with Loyalist College to offer students the opportunity to take their mechatronics micro-credential program and prepare students for their workforce.
- Inclusion: micro-credentials can be completed at your own pace and offer a more learner-centred experience. Therefore, they can accommodate the needs of a more diverse range of learners and provide greater opportunities for those from disadvantaged backgrounds to advance and reskill.
- Lifelong learning: micro-credentials have an integral role to play in lifelong learning which has become all the more important with an increasing global aging population. They allow learners to acquire up-to-date skills throughout their careers, and encourages a proactive approach toward both personal and professional development.
- Pace: the short term, targeted nature of micro-credentials mean they are more easily built, evaluated and assessed than entire traditional degree programs. As such, they can better keep pace with the rate of change in terms of labour market and societal demands.
- Stackable: micro-credentials form the building blocks of stackable degrees. As learners accumulate and combine more micro-credentials, they gradually build a comprehensive portfolio that showcases their expertise and demonstrates their dedication to continuous learning. These are evident in offerings like the “microcertificates” in technology or sustainability offered by Harvard Extension School that can stack towards related graduate degrees and certificates.
- Lack of research: though growing in popularity and implementation, large scale research on the impact of micro-credentials on employability is still lacking, and data is not captured in any national population surveys.
- Lack of standardisation: the standard of micro-credentials can vary largely within and between countries and providers in terms of the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) level they are offered at. This makes it difficult for both learners and employers alike to compare and recognise the value of the credential.
- Disconnect: a typical degree has a clear learning pathway from enrollment to graduation. Though micro-credentials can be broken down and modularised, there is a limit to their stackability and connection to other credentials. This lack of clear pathway can be a hindrance to learners in reaching their full potential in a competency.
What does it all mean for universities?
Micro-credentials are just one instrument that can promote diversity in knowledge exchange and propel higher education to greater heights. Policy has a role to play here in building trust in the value of micro-credentials. One way countries can do this, recommended by The European Training Foundation, is through standardisation, e.g. establish commonly agreed principles for designing, issuing, and recognising micro-credentials, and integrating these into their National Qualifications Framework. With further research, investment, and more standardisation, micro-credentials could be a valuable tool in the internationalisation of higher education; forging better cross-border recognition of credentials and contributing to greater equity of access and student mobility.
Ready for more?
If you liked this article, you may also enjoy our Future of Universities podcast episode: Lifelong Learning and the Personalisation of Education.
 European Commission (2022) A European approach to micro-credentials. https://education.ec.europa.eu/education-levels/higher-education/micro-credentials
 OECD (2023) Micro-credentials for lifelong learning and employability: Uses and possibilities. OECD Education Policy Perspectives, No. 66, OCED Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9c4b7b68-en.
 European Training Foundation (2022) Guide to design, issue and recognize micro-credentials. https://www.etf.europa.eu/sites/default/files/2023-05/Micro-Credential%20Guidelines%20Final%20Delivery.pdf
Madeline Arkins (author) is a Project Officer at UIIN. In her work she focuses on topics relating to social impact and innovation in regional ecosystems.