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Micro-credentials: What is behind all the buzz?

Micro-credentials are growing exponentially in popularity, attracting the interest of various stakeholders due to their flexibility and ability to meet the demands of a rapidly changing labour market. EUA experts Elena Cirlan and Tia Loukkola break down what exactly micro-credentials are, why higher education institutions should pay attention to the discussion around them, and what needs to be considered when developing a European approach to micro-credentials.

The European Commission’s Communication on the European Education Area, published on 30 September, includes a commitment to work towards an European approach to micro-credentials. This approach was also included in the EU Skills Agenda launched in July and is expected to contribute to the implementation of the Commission’s Digital Education Action Plan. In parallel, in view of the rapid changes in our societies and economies, micro-credentials have been part of the discussions leading to the forthcoming 2020 Bologna Process Communiqué (November 2020).

There are many different definitions for micro-credentials, however the majority state that a micro-credential is a small volume of learning certified by a credential. For instance, certificates, badges, and some MOOCs are sometimes referred to as examples of micro-credentials. This is not a new phenomenon in our societies nor in the academic environment. But due to the changing societal needs, globalisation and technology, micro-credentials have become more popular. As the need for upskilling and reskilling the labour force has gained importance, especially in the context of the recovery plans surrounding Covid-19, attention to micro-credentials has intensified.

But why are micro-credentials and the current debates about their use, portability and recognition of interest to higher education institutions?

A recent EUA study, conducted as part of the MICROBOL project, found that micro-credentials are usually issued in collaboration across various types of organisations. Higher education institutions are one of the key providers of micro-credentials. They furnish both credit-bearing micro-credentials (for which a learner earns credits at completion) and non-credit-bearing micro-credentials (for which a learner does not earn credits).

Micro-credentials can be delivered in online, face-to-face, or blended formats and can be as stand-alone units of learning or structured in a sequence of courses that can be embedded eventually within, or cumulate into, a larger credential. In the latter case, a learner may, for example, complete two modules that are part of different Bachelor programmes and stack the credentials obtained into one, larger credential. Further, micro-credentials can be used for complementing conventional qualifications as part of lifelong learning and continuous professional education, and as pre- and post-graduate education. Fifty-five percent of higher education institutions responding to a recent EUA survey carried out as part of DIGI-HE project, considered that the non-degree short courses mainly serve lifelong learners. Micro-credentials do not substitute formal qualifications as the learning outcomes and volume of learning are much smaller.

Higher education institutions may offer micro-credentials for various reasons. But to a large extent, offering them is a way to respond to the needs of society and thus part of an institution’s societal mission. This is the case, for example, of some alliances under the European University Initiative which are developing and offering micro-credentials. Other motivations for offering micro-credentials include increasing the institution’s visibility and reputation by widening geographical reach and attracting more diverse groups of students; increasing their responsiveness to students’ and labour markets’ demands; experimenting with new pedagogies and technologies; and generating additional income or reducing costs. The cost has been a key driver particularly in the US, Australia and New Zealand where the phenomenon of alternative credentials has been more present. But in many European countries, where tuition fees are low or do not exist, the difference of price for students taking micro-credentials is not big while the cost for a micro-credential offered outside formal degree programmes can actually be higher.

The distribution of roles in lifelong learning offer vary from one education system to another and therefore the engagement of higher education institutions also varies. In addition, whether an institution offers micro-credentials depends greatly on its profile, mission and strategy.

Returning to European-level developments, there are currently debates about quality assurance, recognition, and portability of micro-credentials. For a proper take up of these credentials, learners need to have access to relevant information about the contents and quality of these learning activities, be able to store the micro-credentials (which are mostly digital certificates), and make use of them when necessary. The employers need to understand what these credentials mean, what their value is, and how they compare with conventional programmes and qualifications. These aspects should be considered by any provider of micro-credentials to ensure transparency and clarity so that the learners and the employers are well informed. At present, as the EUA study shows, this is not always the case.

Therefore, any future European approach for micro-credentials should aim to increase clarity and transparency. But it should also leave room for diversity and creativity in this field because these features are at the core of this education offer that builds on the increasing need for flexibility in higher education.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Elena Cirlan

Elena Cirlan is a Policy and Project officer in the Institutional Development Unit, where her work focuses mainly on quality assurance in higher education. She contributes to the management of EUA’s Institutional Evaluation Programme (IEP) and to the coordination of the annual European Quality Assurance Forum (EQAF) as well as to the implementation of projects related to quality assurance.

Tia Loukkola

Tia Loukkola is the Director of the EUA Institutional Development unit. She is in charge of a variety of EUA’s activities dealing with improving and monitoring the quality of universities and their educational mission, as well as specific topics including quality assurance, recognition, rankings and learning and teaching.

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