Starting points for recognition of micro-credentials
These are some of the questions that the report, Micro-credentials and Bologna Key Commitments: State of play in the European Higher Education Area, tries to answer. The report presents the results of a comparative analysis on data coming from 35 countries which are members of the EHEA.
Data was collected through a survey that was filled in with extensive information and thanks to the active engagement of ministries of education and their representatives within the framework of the MICROBOL (Micro-credentials linked to the Bologna Key Commitments) project.
Context of the study
In the MICROBOL project, co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union, ministries and stakeholders involved in the Bologna Follow-up Group (BFUG) explore whether and how the existing Bologna tools can be used and-or adapted to be applicable to micro-credentials. In line with this objective, at the end of 2020 a survey was launched to the members of the BFUG as well as the nominated representatives in the MICROBOL working groups.
The study presents the results of the survey with answers from 35 countries and showcases the decisive steps that the development and acceptance of micro-credentials in the framework of the Bologna Key Commitments entail. The document also represents an evidence-based starting point for discussion about future developments in micro-credentials.
The report presents the state of play of micro-credentials in the EHEA relative to six dimensions: their development, legislation, digitalisation and their applicability to existing qualifications frameworks, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) and other recognition and quality assurance work.
Development, regulation and digitalisation
The first results to emerge from the study are that the majority of the countries are already offering and-or developing micro-credentials and that understanding of what constitutes a micro-credential varies greatly across the countries surveyed.
The second element to emerge is that there are very different approaches to micro-credentials on the regulatory side. While in the majority of the countries the national regulatory framework allows for the provision of micro-credentials, only in a few cases are they explicitly regulated or mentioned in legislation and different typologies of micro-credentials can be offered and recognised.
Many countries reported that the regulatory framework at national level needs to be adapted and expressed confidence in their efforts at integrating micro-credentials in national legislation.
One key element for the portability of micro-credentials is digitalisation. According to the results of the survey, the vast majority of countries do not have policies on digitalisation of credentials in general. Nevertheless, a small group of countries have such policies and in a few cases micro-credentials are part of them.
Qualifications frameworks and ECTS
In the majority of countries there is no reference to micro-credentials in the national qualifications framework (NQF). In most cases, this is due to the fact that micro-credentials are perceived as a new topic which requires further discussion at national level.
Nonetheless, most of the countries do have micro-credentials expressed in ECTS, either in some cases or always. The number assigned or estimated to ECTS varies across countries and the range in number of ECTS credits varies from 1 to more than 100.
Even if the discussion on qualifications framework (QF) and ECTS is still ongoing, there is consensus on the fact that, if micro-credentials are referred to in the NQF, this supports transparency and recognition.
The majority of countries have implemented policies related to the recognition of micro-credentials, but many countries do not have specific policies. As for the purpose of recognition, most of the countries recognise micro-credentials with the aim of increasing learners’ competitiveness in the labour market, both for academic purposes and for further study (also in the form of recognition of credits and of prior learning).
In almost half of the countries, learners can accumulate micro-credentials to build up to a degree programme (but in some cases stackability is not possible towards a full degree). The data shows that several countries, but still not the majority of respondents, do not recognise micro-credentials from providers other than higher education institutions.
Transparent information provision is among the keys to recognition: this should include the elements needed for recognition and it should be addressed both to higher education institutions and to non-formal providers at the national level.
Looking at the inclusion of micro-credentials in national quality assurance (QA) systems, the fact that they are not explicitly mentioned does not prevent most countries from considering them as implicitly covered by their QA system. It seems that ad hoc external quality procedures (such as programme accreditation) are considered too burdensome to be applied to micro-credentials.
In most cases information is provided by the awarding institution itself. The majority of the countries have neither a record of the micro-credentials offered at national level, nor a register of providers. Furthermore, the majority of countries have not implemented any other policies related to the QA of micro-credentials.
It is essential to avoid the confusion and lack of understanding of this learning experience that could result from the absence of specific QA mechanisms and sources of information, especially in view of the likely growth of micro-credentials. To address this point, transparency is a key issue.
Analysing the results of the survey, a number of transversal issues emerge.
The first one is related to the need for further discussion at national and international level to reach a common understanding of micro-credentials.
Together with a common definition, a clear and transparent common framework is key, with a balance between ‘standardisation’ and flexibility to encompass the diversity of experiences at national and international level.
The results show a very dynamic picture with regard to the acceptance and uptake of micro-credentials at a national level. In many countries national discussion is ongoing and it is important to monitor developments in a diachronic approach, for instance, repeating the survey in a year’s time and comparing the results.
Internationalisation is a key topic, together with discussions at the national level: the aspect of co-constructing micro-credentials with a transnational approach must be kept in view and taken into account.
Micro-credentials are not a goal in themselves but are important for the full educational and professional development of individuals. This learner-centred approach should be at the core of discussions so that Bologna tools can continue to be levers for the training and development of individuals.
The adaptation of Bologna tools (QA, recognition, QF and ECTS) to micro-credentials requires effort and will incur an administrative cost. For this reason the effort should be ‘proportional’ and a fit-for-purpose approach may be most effective.
Digitalisation remains an open issue: in a context where the majority of countries do not have policies in the field, either for full degrees or for micro-credentials, there is a huge space for the development of digital instruments as a means to support portability, authenticity and transparency of all types of qualifications and, more generally, to underpin mobility.
A clear need for peer support on the topic emerges from the survey results, as well as for more discussion, consultation and exchange of practices at national and international levels in order to reach a common understanding and to place the development of micro-credentials within a common framework.
In this sense this report is a starting point and constitutes a reference for further discussions, showcasing a very dynamic landscape where more developments are to be expected in the near future.
Magalie Soenen is policy advisor in higher education at the Ministry of Education and Training of the Flemish community of Belgium and MICROBOL project coordinator. Chiara Finocchietti is deputy director of CIMEA, the Italian ENIC-NARIC centre, and co-author of the report on the state of play of micro-credentials in the European Higher Education Area.