‘To win big, we have to think small’ – this is the idea at the heart of one of the most significant developments in further and higher education in recent years: the advent of ‘microcredentials’.
The rise of short, vocational, and cost-effective courses represents a marked cultural shift in British education. Gone are the days where highly-structured, highly costly multi-year degree programmes were the only game in town for millions of learners looking to gain the knowledge and skills they need to get ahead.
Increasingly, they are being given the option of taking agile, flexible qualifications tailored to their individual needs.
The passing of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act in April has contributed greatly to this shift, establishing the new logic of modular and adaptable learning as a top policy priority.
This is no doubt a promising direction of travel – and one that many universities and FE colleges now embrace as a viable pathway.
However, the rise of microcredentials also poses several key challenges for policymakers which must be addressed if the current micro-learning revolution is to truly take root.
A new report by the Lifelong Education Commission this week, which I Chair, attempts to tackle some of these issues.
One problem identified in the report is the fact that micro-learning is still a new and fast-evolving concept, meaning there is currently no settled definition of what counts under this term.
At present there is also limited guidance available on what micro-learning courses are available in the UK – making it difficult for learners to stay informed on all the choices open to them.
Microcredentials may be a new frontier in higher learning, but we simply cannot afford to leave them in a ‘Wild West’ zone – where conceptual ambiguity on the one hand and poor oversight on the other undermines learner confidence.
To remain viable, microcredentials must be brought into the mainstream as soon as possible, which will mean devising a clear definitional framework which all HE institutions must adopt.
This definition must, however, strike a careful balance; remaining broad enough to capture different ways of structuring such courses – including part-time, in-work, evening or weekend, hybrid or online – whilst being specific enough to distinguish micro-learning from unrelated products like massive online open courses (MOOCs) and skills bootcamps.
Those tasked with defining microcredentials must also not forget the chief aim of higher learning: to give workers the advanced knowledge and skills they need to take up high-wage jobs at the cutting edge of their chosen industries.
Including voices from business, trade unions, and learners’ groups in the process of shaping and promoting micro-learning may therefore prove invaluable in giving the model some real teeth.
Ultimately, microcredentials are a way to bridge the needs of employers and employees at both the local and national levels. Designing modularised courses with local economies and workforces in mind could help to prepare learners for work in growth sectors, whilst reversing decline in strategic industries.
Another big challenge facing the Government is how the micro-learning model might be put into motion practically, once the more academic issues surrounding definition and structure are squared away.
One solution might be to create a series of regional pilots that could act as flagships for new microcredential courses. Seeing how such qualifications work in practice could help iron-out any wrinkles they may have, whilst assuaging the early concerns of learners and provider institutions.
Further, the Government has its own part to play in making sure learners get the most out of this new form of modularised learning. Many learners still face considerable barriers to accessing small-credit courses, due to the burdensome bureaucracy surrounding which students are eligible for lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) funding.
Removing arbitrary restrictions like the Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) rule, which prevents graduates from receiving funding support if they hold a qualification on or below their course of choice, would be a good start.
Reforming or scrapping such barriers should be priority number one in helping the micro-learning revolution get off the ground. In tandem, priority number two for policymakers should be to offer incentives for employers to invest in this unique form of workforce training.
This could include tax credits for businesses willing to invest in the training and skills development of their employees – especially in more economically deprived parts of the country.
Microcredentials have the potential to unleash a real skills revolution in the UK. By having access to bite-sized, adaptable, and customizable forms of higher learning, learners across the country will be better able to meet the reskilling and upskilling demands of the modern economy.
The onus is now on Government, HE institutions, and businesses to work together to give modularised micro-learning the best possible chance of success.