European bid to boost recognition for micro-credentials

Micro-credentials are the key to higher education, successfully reaching out to non-traditional groups who need to upskill or reskill, particularly in response to the economic upheaval caused by COVID-19. They should help universities meet societal needs for greater flexibility in lifelong learning opportunities, according to a webinar hosted by the European University Association (EUA).

The online discussion on ‘flexible learning: micro-credentials as a way to enhance learning and teaching in the European Higher Education Area’ brought together university representatives and the European Commission to share views about the need to clarify the definition and learning outcomes of such credits and improve employer understanding of the value of micro-credentials.

The webinar, chaired by Tia Loukkola, director of institutional development at the European University Association, on 27 October included findings from an EUA study conducted as part of the MICROBOL project, which is exploring the status of micro-credentials and their potential use in the intergovernmental higher education reform Bologna Process which involves 48 European countries and a number of European organisations.

Key Erasmus+ objective

The two-year MICROBOL project (Micro-credentials linked to the Bologna key commitment) is being coordinated by the Flemish Ministry of Education and Training in Belgium and has financial support from the EU’s Erasmus+ Programme, which has made increased access to continuous learning for all learners, regardless of age or experience, one of its key objectives.

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Elena Cirlan, a policy and project officer with the EUA, said their study – part of the MICROBOL project – looked at how micro-credentials are perceived by different stakeholders and how existing European Higher Education Area tools for recognition, credit transfer and quality assurance can be used or adapted to accommodate them.

She said the term micro-credentials refers to the study involved as well as the credential itself, as it does with degrees.

“But there are different characteristics. Usually they are smaller than conventional qualifications and can be formal or non-formal,” said Cirlan, who added that micro-credentials are often seen as digital forms of learning – but they can also be delivered through evening or weekend classes.

“There’s no consensus at the moment on the definition of the term, but there is quite a lot of work around it.

“Policy-makers see them as shorter and a more targeted and flexible way to address the short-term needs of society and [the] labour market.”

More specialised and targeted

For higher education institutions, Cirlan suggested that micro-credentials offer a more specialised and targeted way to widen participation to different groups of students and allow them to experiment with the use of new technologies.

For learners, micro-credentials offer the chance to access degree programmes and acquire inter-disciplinary knowledge and skills to increase their competitiveness in the labour market without committing to full-time study.

From the employers’ perspective, they can be used for on-the-job training and help them understand the specific skills the prospective employee might offer.

Cirlan said, while higher education institutions played “a very active role” in their delivery, micro-credentials are often provided in collaboration with various types of organisation. There are specialised learning platforms that focus on particular occupations and professions and a growing number of professional organisations are designing their own programmes.

Complementing conventional HE qualifications

She stressed: “They are not a substitute for conventional HE qualifications but rather complement them.”

The MICROBOL project will focus on three key issues – the qualification framework and the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS); recognition and quality assurance – and try to find the best way forward, she explained.

Frederik De Decker, head of the international relations office at Ghent University, Belgium, told the webinar: “Micro-credentials offer big opportunities from small volumes of learning” and said higher education’s contribution was “not just in offering them, but also recognising them”.

He said they were particularly valuable in recognising prior learning when students decide to switch from one programme to another because it enables them to get exemptions for areas they have already studied and secured credits for.

Bundle together for a micro-degree

“Credit certificates are already embedded in our law,” said De Decker, explaining that Flemish institutions, especially universities of applied science, can “bundle together a number of these courses that a student gets a credit or certificate for and then advertise that as a micro-degree”.

He urged traditional universities to support this “alternative way of learning” and said it fits in well with other forms of credit transfer and practices, saying: “This idea of portability and flexibility has been around for international student mobility for a long time.”

He said: “Within traditional degrees, the use of micro-credentials has huge potential to enhance flexibility and openness to more diverse learners and is also beneficial to more regular students who are able to work together with more mature students and students from different backgrounds.”

He saw great potential for micro-credentials linking in with initiatives such as the European student card, with a strong focus on student data portability and “stackability possibilities, not only within your own higher education system, but also to the rest of Europe”.

Consistency of standards needed

Vanessa Debiais-Sainton, head of the Higher Education Unit at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture, told the webinar: “We have to have some kind of consistency of standards and increase the visibility so we can increase understanding of micro-credentials.”

She said the new EU drive to develop a European approach to micro-credentials was “very high on the European agenda” and was being promoted by two European Commissioners – Mariya Gabriel, who is in charge of education and training, and Nicolas Schmit, who is responsible for employment.

A skills agenda was unveiled by the European Commission in July and further communiqués on achieving a European Education Area by 2025 and the new Digital Education Action Plan were announced this autumn, as University World News has reported.

Debiais-Sainton said: “It is important to act now. The world is changing and we need to prepare the young generations for the new jobs and upskill and reskill the European workforce.

“This requires much more flexible and modular ways to provide learning and teaching opportunities that are much more targeted and focused.”

These moves have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic with more and more people needing reskilling and upskilling, she said.

Among the priorities is agreeing on a common definition of what a micro-credential is and “building trust by ensuring quality and transparency”.

To achieve these goals, Debiais-Sainton said the European Commission had set up an expert group with representatives from higher education institutions, quality assurance agencies, national authorities and European stakeholder organisations, like EUA and members of the European university alliances, to act as pioneers.

“We’ve had three very good meetings and plan to present a final report by the end of November or early December and this will be the starting point for an even wider consultation,” she said.

A revamp of the EuroPass is already under way to store all these credentials and enable ‘smoother recognition’, which will be especially useful for those who go and learn abroad, said Debiais-Sainton.

Nic Mitchell is a journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities communication network, EUPRIO, and on his website. He provides English-language communication support on a freelance basis for European universities and specialist higher education media.

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