Micro credenciales: ¿hacia dónde apuntan?
Abril 24, 2024

The rise of micro-credentials: The end of universities?

Micro-credentials have recently been high on the agendas of various higher education stakeholders across the world. An increasing number of universities now offer them in addition to their regular macro degrees. Policy-making bodies have begun to update their national university admission systems to recognise micro-credentials.

Supranational organisations, such as the OECD and the European Commission, have begun to explore further use of micro-credentials in member countries’ higher education systems.

Employers, on the other hand, have started to use micro-credentials in their hiring procedures. In a recent study, 5,000 university students, recent graduates and employers across 11 countries were surveyed by Coursera, a leading micro-credential provider, in collaboration with Repdata and Dynata, two market research companies.

It was revealed that 72% of employers tend to employ a candidate who holds a micro-credential. Similarly, 90% of students and recent graduates agree that micro-credentials enable them to stand out to potential employers.

Several global companies have indeed already started to hire candidates who have micro-credentials rather than a university degree. In an interview he gave to Auto Bild, Elon Musk noted that “there’s no need even to have a college degree at all” to work for Tesla, a leading electric car manufacturer.

Similarly, Joanna Daley, the vice-president of talent at IBM, stated that “about 15% of her company’s US hires don’t have a four-year degree” in an interview with CNBC. She adds in the same interview that “instead of looking exclusively at candidates who went to college, IBM now looks at candidates who have hands-on experience”, which can be recognised through micro-credentials.

The increasing value ascribed to micro-credentials in both higher education and the job market forces us to explore the nature of micro-credentials and their potential impacts on the higher education ecosystem.

What are micro-credentials?

As they still are evolving, there is yet no definition of micro-credentials that is agreed by everyone. To address this need, UNESCO organised a global expert panel to reach a consensus on a definition, which resulted in a report titled Towards a Common Definition of Micro-credentials in 2022.

The report proposed a definition of a micro-credential as “a record of focused learning achievement verifying what the learner knows, understands or can do”. It also “includes an assessment based on clearly defined standards”, “is awarded by a trusted provider”, “may also contribute to or complement other micro-credentials or macro-credentials through recognition of prior learning” and “meets the standards required by relevant quality assurance”.

Micro-credentials are short courses but not all short courses are micro-credentials. Accordingly, pre-determined standards are employed to assess micro-credential learners’ achievements and the awarding body also has to meet several standards to qualify as a trusted provider. Unlike many short courses, micro-credentials are stackable, which means that they can lead to a degree. While many short courses lack external quality assurance, micro-credentials go through a quality assurance process.

Why are micro-credentials becoming popular?

A recent survey conducted by Robert Half International Inc, a leading international human resources consulting company founded in 1948, has revealed that an overwhelming majority of executives (95%) have reported that they encounter challenges in finding skilled employees who meet their specific requirements.

Micro-credentials close this skills gap by upskilling employees and job market candidates. For example, a healthcare professional can get a six-week micro-credential titled Patient Journey and System Design offered by Future Learn in collaboration with Deakin University and several hospitals to gain operational management skills.

This micro-credential allows him or her to implement theories of capacity planning, investigate causes of delay in emergency situations and obtain resources for enhancing patient satisfaction. Ultimately, this enhances his or her competitiveness in the job market. For those in employment, it results in upskilling in alignment with the expectations of the employer. She or he also has the option to stack this credential with others, thereby paving the way to achieve a graduate degree from Deakin University.

Micro-credentials present several advantages over traditional macro degrees. They offer a shorter time commitment, are more cost-effective, are more closely aligned with the labour market, can be tailored to meet the learner’s specific needs and can even be used to earn an academic degree. Due to these benefits, micro-credentials have become increasingly popular for individuals looking to reskill or upskill.

Are micro-credentials a threat to universities?

There is a growing trend among employers to hire individuals based on their skills and alternative credentials, which has led to an increased interest in obtaining micro-credentials by potential employees.

To capture a share of this market, various accredited providers such as adult education centres, online learning platforms, technology companies, professional associations and non-governmental organisations have begun offering these credentials. As a result, universities are no longer the sole providers of credit-bearing credentials, which raises the question of whether universities will be able to compete or will drop out of this race.

The interest in micro-credentials is rapidly growing, and universities are taking notice by offering them independently or in collaboration with other providers. Some universities have released guidelines on how micro-credentials will be recognised and integrated into degree programmes. Some are even combining them to lead to a degree.

Policy-makers are also exploring the possibility of international recognition of micro-credential certificates at a supranational level.

The European Union has launched the Micro-credentials linked to the Bologna Key Commitments Project (MICROBOL) to investigate how micro-credentials can be integrated into the European Higher Education Area (UHEA).

MICROBOL has created the Common Framework for Micro-credentials in the EHEA, which examines the quality assurance, assessment and description of micro-credentials using the principles of the Lisbon Recognition Convention and European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System.

These efforts by higher education stakeholders suggest that they are aware of the recent surge in interest in micro-credentials. At present, universities are the primary providers of micro-credentials that serve as a part of a higher education course or an addition to an existing degree for learners who have already completed their higher education.

However, if micro-credentials become more widely accepted and relied upon in skills-based hiring decisions compared to traditional degree-based hiring, there could be two consequences for universities.

Firstly, demand for higher education could decrease as skills are earned more flexibly and in a shorter time through micro-credentials. Secondly, learners might turn to non-university providers that can offer more practical and market-driven training.

While it is not possible to predict what the outcomes will be with any certainty, the efficiency of micro-credentials in equipping learners with skills in a shorter time suggests that their future is promising.

Hakan Ergin is assistant professor of higher education studies at Boaziçi University in Türkiye. E-mail:[email protected] / Twitter: twitter.com/HakanErgin_HE
John Brennan is emeritus professor of higher education research at The Open University, United Kingdom, and visiting professor at the University of Bath. He was formerly honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford and visiting professor at the London School of Economics. E-mail: [email protected].


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