The promise of micro-credentials? The road to recognition

Micro-credentials are gaining momentum in the European area as an innovative way to support skills development, lifelong learning and inclusion within the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and the European Union.

In the latest Rome communiqué, the 49 EHEA countries identified micro-credentials as a way to make the EHEA more innovative. Micro-credentials are also essential to various actions of the European Commission. In the ambitious European Education Area micro-credentials are seen as a way to diversify the student population and to make higher education more inclusive by 2025 by supporting lifelong learning and providing more flexible and modular learning opportunities.

The European Skills Agenda identifies micro-credentials as a way to up-skill and re-skill professionals, to value learning outcomes and to increase permeability and flexibility between different education sectors and pathways.

The Digital Education Action Plan (2021-2027) considers micro-credentials a tool to support the relevance, quality and inclusiveness of European education and training at all levels. The promises of micro-credentials – skills development, lifelong learning and inclusivity – are at the core of the European approach to micro-credentials launched by the European Commission.

This approach includes a common definition of micro-credentials and a roadmap of actions for their development and adoption in Europe. For this purpose, the European Commission established a consultation group in 2020 with experts from different European countries. Delivered in early February 2021, the final report of that consultation group is intended to feed into a European Council recommendation on micro-credentials.

The road to recognition

One of the sustaining building blocks of this European approach to micro-credentials is academic recognition. Academic recognition is crucial to ensure acceptance and uptake of micro-credentials within higher education. However, a fair evaluation can only be carried out if transparent information is available on elements such as the quality, workload, level and learning outcomes of the credential.

There are currently a number of initiatives that look into the development of micro-credentials and provide guidance on their recognition, both at a policy level and at a practical level with concrete tools.

The Lisbon Recognition Convention, adopted in 1997 in the Portuguese capital and entered into force in 1999, is the legal framework for the fair recognition of qualifications. Ongoing discussions on the convention explore how its principles can apply to the recognition of micro-credentials.

From 2016, the Erasmus+ co-funded the PARADIGMS and e-VALUATE projects that are centred on recognition of new forms of modular (online) learning. The methodology developed in these projects is based on the Lisbon Recognition Convention and is applicable for recognising micro-credentials.

In early 2020 the projects were concluded with the publication of practical guidelines for admissions officers at higher education institutions and credential evaluators at ENIC-NARIC centres.

In addition, recommendations were made to providers on how to facilitate the recognition of micro-credentials and other forms of modular learning because they are not always part of the usual frameworks.

These recommendations include using (where possible) existing Bologna tools to describe the learning outcomes of a module, like the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), National Qualifications Framework and the Diploma Supplement. In addition, it was recommended that modular learning be quality assured.

The STACQ project builds further on these findings and develops a paper on what micro-credentialling could mean for the future of the qualification. First results are expected by the end of 2021.

The MICROBOL project, co-funded in the framework of the Erasmus+ programme, is currently investigating how to apply Bologna tools to micro-credentials in the three key commitments of qualification framework and ECTS, recognition and quality assurance. If this can be achieved, this will further propel micro-credentials into the ‘mainstream’.

The projects’ newly published report on the state of play of micro-credentials in the EHEA showcases quantitative data regarding the current uptake, legislation and use of Bologna tools thanks to the information provided by 35 member countries of the EHEA.

The role of digital solutions

Short learning experiences leading to a micro-credential can be offered online, face to face, or in a blended modality. But offering the micro-credential and the possibility to share it in a digital format, in a secure and certified ecosystem, could be a powerful way to support their portability and recognition, providing, with a simple click, secure information on the issuer, on the owner of the credential, on its authenticity, etc.

CIMEA, the Italian ENIC-NARIC centre, awarded – in the blockchain application Diplome – the first micro-credential for credential evaluators to staff of higher education institutions working in admission offices and in international relations offices, supporting the up-skilling of university staff and raising awareness and knowledge about micro-credentials.

All these initiatives contribute to support academic recognition of micro-credentials and, above all, provide a ‘lens’ to include these new innovative forms of learning.

Chiara Finocchietti is deputy director of CIMEA and member of the NARIC Advisory Board. Jenneke Lokhoff is senior policy officer at Nuffic coordinating the PARADIGMS, e-VALUATE and STACQ projects, and acting president of the ENIC-NARIC Networks.