Microcredentials a ‘new frontier in higher learning’ – report

But microcredentials can only help overhaul the economy once better understood by employer and employees alike, says today’s report from the Lifelong Education Commission

The UK’s tech skills gap can be vastly reduced via the widespread adoption of microcredentials, according to a report published today (8 June) by the Lifelong Education Commission.

While there is currently no single definition, microcredentials, are essentially small units of learning that can be delivered online or face-to-face.

The flexibility of their short-form nature, allowing the course-taker to quickly learn a specific skill, is thought by many to hold the key to overcoming the UK’s ongoing skills gap.

“To win big, we have to think small,” argues Chris Skidmore, former universities minister and chair of the Lifelong Education Commission, in the foreword to ‘The role of microcredentials in modular learning’.

“Gone are the days when gaining higher knowledge and skills meant sitting through multi-year degree programmes. Now, learners increasingly have the chance to expand their horizons in targeted ways, via courses tailored precisely to what they need in their lives and careers.”

Microcredentials have the potential to unleash a real skills revolution across the UK – Chris Skidmore, Lifelong Education Commission

The rise of the microcredential stems in part from a changing educational landscape for post-16s. With the passing of the so-called skills bill in late April, many courses at level four and above are being broken down into more specialised modularised equivalents.

At the moment, argues the report, the uncertainty surrounding this new terrain means that short-form courses cannot offer optimum impact, with only limited oversight as to the range of micro-learning available.

“Microcredentials may be a new frontier in higher learning, but we cannot afford to leave them a ‘wild west’ zone in the long run,” says Skidmore.

“Instead, they need to be brought into the mainstream of HE as soon as possible. That means arriving at a clear definitional framework for microcredentials which all HE institutions adopt to describe the modular, small-credit courses they offer.”

A variety of organisations around the world, including UNESCO and the European Union, are currently trying to forge greater consensus around just such a definition.

“This definition needs to strike a careful balance,” says Skidmore. “It has to be broad enough to capture different ways of setting up courses as microcredentials: part-time, in-work, evening or weekend, hybrid or online.

“And it has to distinguish microcredentials as micro-learning opportunities from other unrelated learning products such as MOOCs [massive open online courses] and skills bootcamps, from courses at level three and below, and from other learning environments, like the private sector.”

From the archive: Coventry Uni and FutureLearn launch tech-focused microcredentials to upskill the workforce

For all of their perceived benefits, the short-form courses have yet to fully cut through in the area where their proponents claim they can herald a revolution: the jobs market. A survey conducted by the British Chambers of Commerce for today’s report found that fewer than one in five (17%) of employers had some level of awareness of microcredentials, while only 2% of employees had studied them.

To that end, the report makes 12 recommendations on how best to proceed:

  • The Department for Education should map all micro-learning courses in the UK to gather evidence and inform future policymaking and funding
  • Government should consider a regional pilot to test ideas, including peer consortia for the co-design, co-development, co-delivery, and co-funding of microcredentials
  • Universities UK, the Association of Colleges and the Collab Group should promote awareness, understanding and potential of the courses
  • HE providers should promote these forms of learning more widely with employers in local labour markets, and seek to recruit harder to reach students
  • Adult careers advisors will also need to understand and communicate the benefits of micro-learning to enable learners to make choices
  • HE institutions in the UK should move towards a common definition
  • Government should ensure that microcredentials, with a value of less than 30 credits, should qualify for funding via the lifelong loan entitlement
  • Units of accreditation should be costed at a price that is proportional to fees for an undergraduate degree
  • HE providers should consider subscription-based funding models
  • Government should also consider tax incentives for employers to invest in this form of workforce training
  • Local government and mayoral combined authorities should use devolved funds to invest in the development of the learning as affordable solutions to local skill needs
  • Government and regulatory bodies with oversight of HE should adopt a streamlined approach to regulation and data requirements of those taking microcredentials

“All in all,” concludes Skidmore, “microcredentials have the potential to unleash a real skills revolution across the UK, by providing access to bite-sized higher learning that can satisfy the reskilling and upskilling needs of the UK economy.”

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