Following yesterday’s piece on developments in micro-credentials, I want to address what I see as the back-lash against them. I see theoretical and the practical objections emerging.
The theoretical charge against micro-credentials is led by OISE’s Leesa Wheelahan and Gavin Moodie, who recently penned Gig qualifications for the gig economy: micro-credentials and the ‘hungry mile’ in the journal Higher Education. As the catchy title suggests, it does not mince words. According to them, micro-credentials:
“contribute to the privatisation of education by unbundling the curriculum and blurring the line between public and private provision in higher education. They accelerate the transfer of the costs of employment preparation, induction, and progression from governments and employers to individuals. Micro-credentials contribute to ‘disciplining’ higher education in two ways: first by building tighter links between higher education and workplace requirements (rather than whole occupations), and through ensuring universities are more ‘responsive’ to employer demands in a competitive market crowded with other types of providers. Instead of micro-credentials, progressive, democratic societies should seek to ensure that all members of society have access to a meaningful qualification that has value in the labour market and in society more broadly, and as a bridge to further education. This is a broader vision of education in which the purpose of education is to prepare individuals to live lives they have reason to value, and not just in the specifics required of particular jobs.”
This, it seems to me, is vastly overstating the case.
Put it this way: the authors are certainly correct in saying that democratic societies should seek to ensure that everyone has access to meaningful qualifications. They are right in pointing out (I am paraphrasing) that shorter programs are about the “how” and longer programs are about the “why” and it is therefore only the longer programs that provide workers with the deeper levels of subject knowledge that allow them to gain agency in the workplace. This is all true.
Unfortunately, the rest of the argument is longer on assertion than it is on facts. Insufficient evidence is produced for the claim that the types of jobs that micro-credentials feed into are “gig” jobs. As far as I can tell, there is not a significant market for micro-credentials for Uber divers or freelance writers – quite the contrary. To the extent that there is a corporate connection to these programs the precise point is of these arrangements is to reduce reliance on gig workers and replace them with full-timers. Nor is there adequate evidence that this is about transferring costs from the institution (or the state) to the individual. In many parts of the world – including Ontario as it happens – these courses receive significant subsidies. We just don’t know enough (yet) about how the size of those subsidies compare with those in degree-programs to determine whether one involves more cost-sharing than the other.
But perhaps the biggest issue is that there is no satisfactory evidence to suggest that micro-credentials work in opposition to prepare people for valuable lives or against public education. For the most part micro-credentials are being consumed by people who already have some level of education: it is additive, not substitutive. To a significant extent, micro-credentials are not new, but a re-invention of an old form of education: bespoke short-term training courses. And few people think that these kinds of training programs are incompatible with modern publicly-funded systems of higher education.
The other type of push-back we are starting to see on micro-credentials comes from faculty. It’s not a generalized push-back, but rather something of a boundary-dispute. Sometimes, institutions create bespoke micro-credentials geared towards a particular industry or employer. These are generally non-credit, but institutions also want to make them “stackable” into actual credentials. Not that most institutions offer enough micro-credentials to stack into anything at all – it’s more that people are being offered “advanced credit” for having taken the micro-credential. But still, that creates problems. It’s easy enough to see how offering credit for work that is theoretically non-credit could look like contracting out. It also creates some grey zones with respect to institutional Senates and their authority over degree content, which might not unreasonably be seen as an infringement on faculty privileges.
So, a case of organized management infringement of faculty rights? Well, no, not really. From the management perspective, micro-credentials are a subset of Continuing Education, which at most institutions avoids Senate scrutiny as well – ContEd wants to be able to move quickly to respond to market demands and Senate doesn’t want to deal with the volume of program changes that ContEd creates, so at most universities they are ok with ignoring one another. But the stackability promise of micro-credentials breaches the wall between the two: hence the problem.
There are various solutions to this problem. Adopting a provincial or national credential framework like New Zealand and assigning levels and credits to all courses would completely solve it: that way, even if it was something bespoke for a particular industry or firm, the “value” of the credit could be objectively defined and understood. Without a transparent system of levels and credits, “stackability” is always going to be restricted to micro-credentials offered within a single institution: no plug-and-play across institutions will be possible.
So, what that leaves as a solution is that each institution either must start running micro-credentials through Senates (which I’m not sure anyone really wants), or they must each adopt more transparent prior-learning recognition systems: one which can credibly assign credit values to non-credit courses in consistent ways in a way that Senates can accept without actually having to review each and every course.
Overall, going the New Zealand route would solve this problem with a lot less fuss, but unfortunately, I suspect Canadian institutions and governments lack the imagination to go that route. Which means each institution is going to have to re-invent the wheel to make stackable micro-credentials a reality. If this is true, it’s unfortunate.