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Providing micro-credentials: the important role of higher education institutions

Micro-credentials are expected to widen participation in higher education by supporting inclusion and facilitating access to education. They are also expected to close the skills gaps in the labour market. EUA experts Elena Cirlan and Maria Kelo elaborate on the important role of higher education institutions in providing micro-credentials, highlighting that learners must be at the centre of their development.

It is clear that micro-credentials are quickly becoming a hot topic for policy makers and stakeholders. The proof is in the fact that the European Commission’s 2021 public consultation on micro-credentials gathered more than 500 contributions from 43 countries, as well as more than 90 position papers. Micro-credentials are expected to widen participation in higher education by supporting inclusion and facilitating access to education. They are also seen as a good solution in closing the skills gaps in the labour market by continually updating the knowledge, skills and competences of learners. The interest in micro-credentials has intensified over the past couple of years due to their potential to provide a fast and flexible solution in response to education needs related to global drivers such as the green and digital transitions, aging populations, global competition and recovery from the pandemic.

At the European level, the European Commission has been advancing the discussion around micro-credentials via the Communication on achieving a European Education Area by 2025, the European Skills Agenda, the European Pillar of Social Rights action plan and the adopted recommendation on “Effective Active Support to Employment following the COVID-19 crisis”, which, provides policy guidance on upskilling and reskilling opportunities and support measures. Recently the Commission published the proposal for a Council Recommendation on micro-credentials. It encourages member states to establish EU-wide principles for accreditation of short training courses and a set of standard elements to describe the credentials themselves. The Commission is calling for the adoption of a comprehensive European approach to micro-credentials, including the appropriate use of existing tools (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), qualification frameworks, as well as existing quality assurance and recognition mechanisms), to develop them. The adoption of the European approach is expected to build trust in micro-credentials across Europe and thereby increase their uptake by learners.   

The members of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) have also been discussing this topic in various events and projects including MICROBOL. Many countries have been preparing for the advancement of micro-credentials by developing national policies and frameworks, providing specific funding and organising country-wide projects for their development and regulation. A survey conducted as part of the MICROBOL project in October-December 2020 found that national legislation allows for the provision of micro-credentials in 23 countries. Eight of them reported that there are specific regulations concerning micro-credentials, while 15 said that there is no such national legislation. It is highly probable that the picture has changed since then, but these developments show that micro-credentials have the potential to become formal qualifications in many European countries.

The role of higher education institutions

An EUA study, conducted as part of the MICROBOL project, found that higher education institutions are one of the key providers of micro-credentials and play an active role in this field. There is also a myriad of other providers such as private companies, public entities and non-governmental organisations. This increases diversity and competition on the market. However, micro-credentials are often developed in collaboration across various types of organisations. For instance, higher education institutions frequently partner with local businesses. This ensures that micro-credentials are relevant to the labour market, not only when developing them but also when updating them.

The aspects concerning quality assurance, recognition and portability of micro-credentials have been at the centre of the debate. The MICROBOL project addressed these extensively in its working groups with ministries and stakeholders involved in the Bologna Follow-up Group. The main conclusion is that existing EHEA tools are applicable to micro-credentials whether provided by or in cooperation with higher education institutions. The primary quality assurance responsibility lies with the higher education institutions, while the focus of external quality assurance should be on the institutional approach to micro-credentials and their explicit inclusion into existing internal processes. Higher education institutions should clearly indicate the learning outcomes, the acquired ECTS credits and the qualifications framework level of each micro-credential. The use of digital credentials can facilitate portability, transparency, reliability of information and verification of authenticity. Higher education institutions should provide transparent information about these aspects as it will facilitate their recognition and uptake. The proposed set of standard elements to describe a micro-credential, which is part of the Commission proposal for a recommendation, is aimed at supporting institutions in this.

In line with the EUA policy input on micro-credentials, the Commission proposal for a recommendation states that micro-credentials are not a new phenomenon and that they complement, rather than replace, conventional qualifications. This is true because micro-credentials’ learning outcomes and volume of learning are smaller than of a degree and because certain graduate attributes, such as critical thinking and problem solving, would normally require more time and training to be developed, and could thus not be acquired by completing a micro-credential.

Concerns regarding micro-credentials posing a threat to the construction of conventional qualifications have been raised. This is largely because micro-credentials are promoted as stackable units of learning. In the context of modularisation, a course unit or module dissected from an existing programme may be offered as a micro-credential. When and if higher education institutions decide to do that, they should consider that in Europe the concept of micro-credentials emerged as a response to the need to formalise lifelong learning in a clear and recognisable manner and that their content is focussed on a specific topic and provide a well-defined set of skills and competences. Therefore, when developing micro-credentials, higher education institutions need to carefully plan the stackability opportunities and consider how and to what extent they may complement the existing programmes.  

Regardless of the format, duration, topic or provider of micro-credentials, learners need to be at the centre of their development. Their participation in quality assurance, at least through collection, use and acknowledgement of their feedback and careful mapping of their needs, should be a part of the internal policies and processes for micro-credentials. Furthermore, providers need to ensure that the credentials are portable and allow learners to store and use them as they find fit, both for employment and study purposes.

Higher education institutions have a long tradition of offering lifelong learning opportunities and micro-credentials are part of the wide lifelong learning provision. However, each institution should consider how and if to integrate micro-credentials into their educational offer, depending on the institutional mission and profile and societal needs. To support further development of micro-credentials, corresponding policies and measures must be implemented at the national level and higher education institutions must be included in all the discussions.

“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.

Maria Kelo

Maria Kelo is the director of the Institutional Development Unit at EUA, which focuses on issues related to higher education learning and teaching, recognition and quality assurance.

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