Micro-credentials can stimulate diversity of provision

Micro-credentials provide the stimulus for us to rethink higher education’s role in lifelong learning – with learners very much at the centre. They should be understood as learning opportunities provided before, during and after higher education studies leading to a degree.

Indeed, they are often referred to as a way to increase and diversify lifelong learning provision to support individual learning pathways and widen access to higher education.

As such, they are not a new concept, but they can help to re-conceptualise the wide diversity of such provision and bring it together into a coherent and more understandable whole.

The recently published “Recommendations from the MICROBOL project for the European Commission’s proposal for a Council recommendation on micro-credentials for lifelong learning and employability” offer policy-makers, experts and the general public an overview of the state of play of micro-credentials, together with inputs for highlighting their way forward in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

In this regard, the set of recommendations suggested by the MICROBOL project feeds the discussion launched at a broader level through the EU Public Consultation “Micro-credentials – Broadening learning opportunities for lifelong learning and employability”.

The recommendations are the result of the work done within the MICROBOL project, co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union, engaging ministries and stakeholders involved in the Bologna Follow-up Group (BFUG) to explore whether and how the existing EHEA tools can be used and-or need to be adapted to be applicable to micro-credentials.

The holistic approach applied in the recommendations results from a synthesis of the three output documents produced by the three working groups (on quality assurance, recognition and qualifications framework and European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System or ECTS), which met twice in the first semester of 2021 to discuss the main challenges of uptake and acceptance of micro-credentials and reflected on the steps to take to move forward.

Together with transversal themes, the documents provide specific suggestions on the Bologna key commitments.

A shared vision

So where should we begin? The first floor of a European building of micro-credentials is a shared vision of what a micro-credential is and an enhanced awareness of the importance that European standards and format may have for their quality, transparency and successful uptake. This represents the background for further discussion on legislation to be developed or adapted, if needed, considering institutional autonomy to allow for diversity and creativity.

Digitalisation constitutes a key element: digital credentials can facilitate portability, transparency, reliability of information and verification of authenticity and, as such, support a fast and fair recognition process and enhanced stackability.

Collaboration of higher education institutions with other providers or employers should be encouraged, as this may increase the relevance of the micro-credentials for the labour market and facilitate the quick transfer of the latest findings from research into learning opportunities. On the other hand, micro-credentials can also serve to evidence the knowledge, skills and competences acquired at work, alongside ‘recognition of prior learning’.

Quality assurance

Moving to the Bologna key commitments, and in particular to quality assurance, the report recommends that the quality assurance of micro-credentials should stay in the hands of education providers, under mechanisms of internal quality assurance, in the light of the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG).

Designing a set of ‘key considerations’ for (internal) quality assurance of micro-credentials in collaboration with various stakeholders and providers is also to be recommended.

To enhance quality and quality assurance of micro-credentials, learners should be included in all steps of development and implementation of micro-credentials. Transparency of information on quality assurance mechanisms as well as on all the elements of micro-credentials is key.

The development of registers and catalogues of providers and micro-credentials, or their incorporation in already existing databases, is also recommended. For providers, the inclusion in the Database of External Quality Assurance Results should be ensured, based on quality assurance in line with the ESG.

Recognition and national frameworks

From the recognition perspective, it is recommended that the extent to which micro-credentials can fall within the scope of the Lisbon Recognition Convention is made explicit and that there is clarity on what could be legal grounds for the academic recognition of micro-credentials.

Another recommendation is to explore the possibility of recognition agreements on micro-credentials among education providers at regional and cross-regional level. Furthermore, micro-credentials could be covered in the revised version of the European Area of Recognition manual.

When a formal (micro-)credential is absent or it does not provide enough reliable evidence on learning outcomes, recognition of prior learning constitutes an important alternative route. In this case, procedures for the validation of learning outcomes from non-formal and informal learning should be fit-for-purpose and appropriate for higher education institutions and learners.

Furthermore, it is important to explore the possibility of developing opportunities to share experiences of and train people about the recognition of non-formal and informal qualifications validation of learning with regard to micro-credentials.

As far as qualifications framework and ECTS are concerned, micro-credentials should be included in the national qualification frameworks, where possible, or governed by decisions taken at a national level.

Micro-credentials as qualifications are included within a national qualification framework which is then self-certified as compatible with the qualifications frameworks in the EHEA. The European discussion and national solutions should be taken forward simultaneously, as they are intertwined.

Another main requisite is that the existing ECTS Users’ Guide is well known and correctly followed by higher education institutions and its elements clarified for other stakeholders. If useful, a simple guide to the relevant existing ECTS principles and features could be formulated so those involved understand how to apply ECTS to micro-credentials.

Cooperation between universities and others in the education sector as well as private providers is also encouraged in order to deliver defined learning outcomes and indicate the workload required as well as to facilitate co-creation of learning activities.

Common ground

The recommendations represent a step towards building a common ground for further policies on the topic.

Exchange of experiences and practices at European, national and regional level, with a peer support approach, inputs from experts, opportunities to share information on legislative and policy developments involving all relevant stakeholders (higher education institutions, ministries, students, employers, quality assurance agencies, ENIC-NARIC centres, etc), together with a set of guidelines on how to organise and develop micro-credentials in the EHEA will be essential for the uptake and development of micro-credentials, both at national and international level.

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, and she coordinates its working group on quality assurance. Chiara Finocchietti is deputy director of CIMEA, the Italian ENIC-NARIC centre, and coordinator of the MICROBOL working group on recognition. Jonna Korhonen is senior ministerial advisor in the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, and coordinator of the MICROBOL working group on qualifications framework and ECTS.