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Agile Learning Pathways: The headways of the University of Limerick in the future of education

Lauren Kroemer-Pope
An aerial view of the University of Limerick's campus.

How can universities formalise structures around micro-credentials that build-in industry engagement from the outset? We discussed this and more with our Initiator Member, University of Limerick (UL), a member of the UIIN community since 2019. Boasting over 18,000 students and 3000+ international students, UL is an enterprising university innovating in both research and education. We spoke to Geraldine Carroll, Professional Education Manager in Graduate and Professional Studies about agile learning pathways and the ins and outs of university-industry engagement.

What are UL’s goals in terms of university-industry engagement?

UL has evolved with industry since its foundation in 1972 and now offers a compelling value proposition in university-industry engagement. Located in the Mid-West of Ireland, (on the Atlantic edge), we are home to the largest concentration of multinationals outside Dublin, a multinational base that in turn supports a thriving base of indigenous enterprise across the sub-supply network. Driven by our strategic plan, UL@50, our enterprise / university partnership enables digital transformation, generates impact for city and culture, as well as contributes to overall health and wellbeing of our students and society. These themes are key as we seek to be more experiential, entrepreneurial and mission based in our approach to learning.

If you reflect, on the four years since you’ve been a member of UIIN what changes have you seen?

We’ve made great strides in micro-credential enabled learning pathways. This is evident in two of our Human Capital Initiatives: the MicroCred project, and UL@Work. The MicroCred project is a partnership between seven universities to build a national framework for micro-credentials. Of the seven universities, UL has the largest number of micro-credentials with 90+ short, accredited modules on offer to professional learners. From an industry perspective, they value the standardisation across universities the project brings and see it as an intentional strategy on UL’s part to close talent gaps and limit their need to recruit. I think there’s a growing realization now that upskilling existing staff is a retention tool and is less expensive compared with recruiting new skills. The interdisciplinary nature of ULs ‘micro-credentials to masters’ routes brings flexibility and learner autonomy.

The university sector has been critiqued for having a linear disciplinary focus, rather than looking at the inter-disciplinary nature of the world of work. We view lifelong learning as an education continuum that professionals can dip in and out of throughout their professional life with a growing number of inter-disciplinary programmes.

UL@Work has generated over 20 online flexible programs that have been co-designed with industry to enable the upskilling across areas of ICT, AI, and robotics, as well as transversal competencies like leadership. In a newly launched interdisciplinary master’s called the Master of Professional Practice, learners can stack three 30 credit Professional Diplomas to form a Master’s degree. The added value is that UL recognises eligible 30 ECTS Diplomas from other institutions so that learners with credentials from elsewhere can progress towards a Master’s here at UL.

Co-creating industry-driven micro-credentials, Professional Diplomas, and Masters pathways has meant that we have had to be agile with our structures and processes to be more responsive to industry, while upholding academic rigour.

What are some of the challenges you have faced?

Regarding engagement, there’s the expected challenge of aligning of industry and university time horizons. Companies operate in a fast-paced environments, striving for competitive advantage, often competing for talent, and universities are student-centred places of learning with a holistic approach to education in support of academic excellence. Our role is to nurture students as whole citizens while preparing them for their career of choice.

We need to safeguard the curriculum to ensure there’s enough space for both the personal and the professional development of all learners.

There are evident global drivers for upskilling. As AI and automation changes work practice, we know that 61% of workers will require retraining by 2027 according to the World Economic Forum. Businesses largely expect employees to pick up new skills on the job, and those expectations have risen. However, the post-Covid employee, although career conscious, is also mindful of work-life balance.

How are you meeting those challenges?

In the last four years, we rolled out an accelerated program validation process for eligible programmes. This means UL can engage companies on programme co-design and validate in a shorter timeframe, without compromising on quality and having embedded safeguards into our governance structures.

Both MicroCred and UL@Work projects have program oversight or enterprise boards built into the project governance. So, if programme focus becomes misaligned our industry partners provide valued feedback. UL is extending this model of industry collaboration with European partners. Most recently through two Digital Europe funded projects EAGLE (a micro-credentials digitisation for SME project) and REBOOT (a digital transformation of EU manufacturing project). We look forward to collaborating further with EU HEI partners to resolve talent challenges for enterprise.

Geraldine Harroll from University of Limerick

Geraldine Carroll

If you would like to learn more about University of Limerick, contact Geraldine Carroll via email.

Ready for more?

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at our article Transforming education: The bright horizon of micro-credentials or the podcast episode Reinventing higher education with Santiago Iñiguez

Lauren Kroemer-Pope (interviewer) is the Outreach and Partnerships Specialist at UIIN.

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.

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