Promoting social inclusion through micro-credentials

Young woman studying outside on a terrace with a computer and books

By Gillian Golden, Shizuka Kato and Thomas Weko

Higher Education Policy Team, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Two new Education Policy Perspectives from the OECD Higher Education Policy Team provide new evidence on the opportunities and challenges that micro-credentials present to higher education systems.
– More work is needed to ensure higher education systems develop micro-credential programmes that are widely understood and recognised across institutions and systems.
– These programmes should also be inclusive, meeting the needs of a wide range of learners.

Micro-credentials – short, targeted and flexible learning programmes – are the new kids on the block in higher education systems. Higher education institutions are increasingly offering them, and governments in many countries have turned to them as a way to swiftly reorient individuals who lost employment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our recent research shows a proliferation of initiatives in the micro-credential space, by higher education institutions as well as private providers, leading to something of a race between innovation and public regulation.

Currently, evidence on the outcomes of micro-credential learners is scarce, and prospects for collecting such evidence is limited. The diversity of the offer across providers and jurisdictions, and the lack of common understanding of what a micro-credential is, or should be, limits the possibilities for collection of comparable data, and the extent to which research on the impact of micro-credentials can be generalised. What we do know is that, globally, there is an emerging understanding that in today’s world individuals will need to continue to learn and renew their skills throughout their lives. To do this, they will need access to flexible education opportunities that can fit around other commitments in their lives. Micro-credentials offered by higher education institutions can play a role in meeting these needs.

However, micro-credentials in higher education are largely targeted to learners who have already achieved higher education and have greater financial resources. This signals that, without appropriate policy interventions, there is a great risk that micro-credentials will compound existing societal inequalities.

So, how can governments and education providers design micro-credentials to contribute to inclusion rather than deepening existing inequalities? Three directions are proposed:

Micro-credentials can support unemployed workers, in particular, youth and long-term unemployed

As a response to the pandemic, governments across the OECD have increased their investment in short-term learning programmes that support unemployed individuals to upskill and reskill. Going forward, governments could build on these initiatives by designing micro-credential programmes specifically to address more structural labour force challenges, such as young people who are not in employment, education or training (NEETs) and the long-term unemployed. These groups often have specific characteristics, such as lower motivation to seek education and training opportunities. Short learning experiences leading to micro-credentials have the potential to encourage renewed engagement in education and training opportunities for disconnected population groups and support their greater access to additional education and training opportunities.

Micro-credentials can smooth the pathway into higher education

It is hard to commit to studying one subject for three or four years as a teenager, and particularly for students without guaranteed access to the robust academic, financial or social resources that can support successful completion. Micro-credentials could be developed as introductory “taster” courses for upper secondary students or graduates to experiment in their field of interest before committing to a degree programme, perhaps by adapting material commonly taught in the first year of bachelor’s programmes. There are already some promising examples of this across Europe. Artesis Plantijn University College of Antwerp in Belgium, for instance, offers parts of a bachelor’s degree in applied psychology as “micro-degrees”. Students receive a certificate upon the completion of a micro-degree, and when enrolling in the bachelor’s degree programme, the certificate will be recognised as credits (usually between 3 and 6 ECTS).

Micro-credentials can help higher education learners complete their degrees

Non-completion of higher education degrees remains a persistent challenge for higher education systems worldwide, and the pandemic has made this issue even harder to tackle. Micro-credentials, if integrated into traditional degree programmes, could help keep students engaged and incentivised to move towards completion. In addition, for students who have dropped out of higher education, micro-credentials may offer a second chance for them to complete their educational pathway by taking programmes that are linked to their previous field of study.

Join us for a webinar on the key findings of the two OECD papers on micro-credentials in higher education on Thursday 7 October 2021 from 13:30-15:30 (Paris time).

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