|There was, he continued, little incentive for universities to change because it was “cheaper, easier” to cater for students early in their lives, given that “people who come mid-career are a lot more demanding. They will basically say ‘I know how I learn and I want you to serve me rather than pushing me through some programme.’” And in a later interview with the Times Higher, Schleicher reportedly said that there was a need to remedy the status quo where we “leave the credentialling to the providers…We wouldn’t do that in any other areas. We wouldn’t have manufacturers doing the regulation of quality assurance.”
So, where to begin?
I mean, if you live in some fantasy world where incumbents voluntarily give up their privileges, I suppose this is a demoralizing outcome. But – really? Institutional financial incentives haven’t changed much: why would they shift focus from lucrative near-monopoly positions for offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees for a new set of credentials with no immediate financial reward?
Higher education is conservative in most respects. It’s not that that change in this area can’t happen – the Bologna process, as convoluted as it was, is proof that it can – but it is difficult for it to do so unless governments get involved and provide either clear policy direction or financial incentives to institutions. By and large governments haven’t really done that. They have, in some cases, intervened to regulate micro-credentials (e.g. Australia, New Zealand) but even there, the attitude has largely been “let the market decide” with governments refusing to put their fingers too heavily on the financial scales. In the absence of clear government direction, change was always going to be gradual. If there is a failure here, it’s a failure of governments to create and steer markets, not a failure of institutions to respond to markets.
In Canada at least, it’s clear that universities have been busy with respect to micro-credentials: just not in any way that actually changes the status quo. I invite everyone to take at a new publication that we at HESA have just produced for the Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer (ONCAT) entitled Approaches to the Stackability of Micro-Credentials*. Despite a widely-held view that colleges are more “nimble” than universities and hence are the “natural” home of micro-credentials, it turns out that roughly two-thirds of the 1300-odd micro-credentials on offer in the province of Ontario are being delivered at universities.
However, the manner that these micro-credentials are being delivered is a clue to how universities see them. In nearly all universities, micro-credentials are being offered through Continuing Education units rather than regular faculties. The reason for this is pretty simple: the one thing that universities have understood about government demands for micro-credentials is that they need to be fast in order to meet market needs. And, as I have mentioned before, pretty much the slowest thing on a university campus is the Senate process. What universities have concluded as a result is that micro-credentials have to be delivered in such a way that Senates never ever get their hands on them – meaning they have to be done through Continuing Education units. The first-order implication of this is that micro-credentials can on no account carry any credit-value (for that, it would need to go through a Senate). The second-order implication is that micro-credentials are being created, delivered, and marketed in a way that is familiar to Continuing Education units.
Now, Cont Ed typically has an established clientele in mind: mid-career folks who need some quick plug-and-play instruction which can help them with career development/opportunities. They’ve been marketing to this group for decades. They know to whom they can sell educational products, and what they need to look like. Which is precisely why micro-credentials in Canada are nothing revolutionary. They are, for the most part, simply old Cont Ed products with new labelling. We used to use words like “certificate”; now we use the term micro-credential. Nowhere is this more true than in the field of Education, which is – believe it or not (it surprised the hell out of me) the #2 field of study for micro-credentials in Ontario, making up nearly a quarter of all credentials. These very definitely aren’t new offerings. For the most part, these are professional development (PD) courses that have been offered to meet Ontario College of Teachers PD requirements, only with new nomenclature to make it appear to governments that change is happening.
In short: there remains the possibility that micro-credentials can remake the market for higher education. But they can’t do it alone. Governments actually need to get their hands dirty to change regulations and incentives if they want systems to evolve. The OECD of all organizations should understand that.
*Nothing in this blog should be construed as representing the views of the Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer