New micro-credential framework shows relevance of Bologna

In November 2020 the ministers in charge of higher education of the 49 member countries of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) signed the Rome Communiqué, in which there is a focus on flexible and open learning paths as important aspects of student-centred learning.

In the communiqué, signed at the end of the ministerial conference hosted by Italy, the ministers asked the Bologna Follow-Up Group to explore how and to what extent smaller and flexible units of learning “including those leading to micro-credentials, can be defined, developed, implemented and recognised by our institutions, using EHEA tools”.

Less than 24 months later, a Common Framework for Micro-credentials in the EHEA has been published, the result of two years of work by the MICROBOL project (co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union).

It is built on the expertise developed through working groups, desk research and a Europe-wide survey on the state of play of micro-credentials as well as a consultation process with EHEA country representatives, stakeholder organisations, experts and partners in the field.

The framework aims to provide higher education institutions, governments and other stakeholders with a concise and clear view of how micro-credentials can fit into the European Higher Education Area, according to the consensus reached up till now. It shows how the Bologna key commitments are applicable to micro-credentials through their focus on quality assurance, the recognition and qualifications framework and the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS).

The framework, presented during the final conference of the MICROBOL project in March hosted by the Flemish Ministry of Education and Training, begins by looking at the main characteristics of micro-credentials, ranging from the need for a common definition to their purpose and use as well as their constitutive elements.

The central part of the framework document is devoted to the application of the key Bologna commitments and this is followed by a conclusion that sketches achievements to date but also a possible way forward.

Focus on the learner

In the MICROBOL framework, micro-credentials are understood as a way to provide the learner with specific knowledge, skills and competences that respond to societal, personal, cultural or labour market needs.

On the one hand, they are referred to as a way to increase and diversify lifelong learning provision, to support individual learning pathways and widen access to higher education. On the other hand, they are seen as a means to re-conceptualise the diversity of lifelong learning provision that already exists and mould it into a coherent and more understandable and verifiable whole.

The framework clearly puts the learner at the centre, with the guiding concept being that micro-credentials are at the service of the personal and professional development of individuals.

Micro-credentials can be earned before, during and after higher education degree programmes and are also a new way to certify competences acquired earlier in life.

Digital credentials can facilitate portability, transparency, reliability of information and verification of authenticity and, as such, support a fast and fair recognition process and facilitate stackability. Funding provisions are also touched upon in this section, together with the potential link between education and research that micro-credentials can offer.

The constitutive elements of these credentials include information on the learner, the provider, the micro-credential itself (title, date of issuance and verification of authenticity), the learning experience (learning outcomes, workload, assessment and form of quality assurance and participation), the level and access requirements.

Quality assurance

Looking at micro-credentials from the perspective of quality assurance in line with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG), the primary responsibility for the quality of provision lies with the higher education institutions.

The focus of external quality assurance should be on the institutional approach to micro-credentials and their explicit inclusion in existing or new processes so that they are fit-for-purpose and so that we avoid overburdening institutions.

The ESG applies to all higher education offered in the EHEA, in whatever format or mode of delivery and for whatever duration. A register of trustworthy providers could be a useful tool for supporting the acceptance and recognition of micro-credentials. Existing registers could be extended or new registers could be established at a national and regional level. At the European level, the DEQAR database could serve that purpose since its scope is to cover all providers and provision aligned with the ESG.

Transparency and transferability

Transparency of information is key for the fair assessment of micro-credentials. If all the constitutive elements are properly displayed, micro-credentials can be assessed in line with the Lisbon Recognition Convention (LRC) principles.

If the credential does not provide enough information to be a guarantee of the learning outcomes acquired, recognition is still possible by using a recognition of prior learning procedure that should be fit-for-purpose and appropriate for higher education institutions and learners.

The main objective would be to work towards the smooth and fair recognition of micro-credentials. ENIC-NARIC networks and the LRC Committee could support transparent information provision and fair recognition of micro-credentials and offer a number of initiatives as background to the recognition process for micro-credentials and as inspiration from principles and practices that have already been used.

The ECTS, comprising learning outcomes and volume of learning, can support the development of micro-credentials. They should be included in the National Qualification Framework (NQF) whenever possible, with a decision that should be made at national level on how the guiding criteria for such inclusion should be defined.

The level at which micro-credentials are included within the NQF in principle also indicates the level in the Framework for Qualifications of the EHEA as well as in the European Qualification Framework as per self-certification and referencing. A micro-credential can only be recognised on the basis of proof of the learning outcomes achieved by a learner according to transparent requirements and after assessment.

Applicability of Bologna tools

The main conclusion of the MICROBOL framework is that the Bologna tools are applicable to micro-credentials, and that they can even give a new boost to their full implementation, for example, regarding recognition of prior learning and a learner-centred approach.

Highlighting some key topics that are still to be addressed, the framework also underlines the need for guiding documents for the different actors involved as well as for further discussion, peer support and collaboration on this topic.

The conclusion of the MICROBOL project constitutes a baseline for further work in the field of micro-credentials of the three EHEA Thematic Peer Groups (TPGs) on Qualifications Framework, Lisbon Recognition Convention and Quality Assurance that operate under the coordination of the Bologna Implementation Coordination Group.

The MICROBOL project also provides a response to the European Commission’s proposal for a Recommendation on a European approach to micro-credentials for lifelong learning and employability that has been recently adopted by the Council of the European Union, marking an important step for micro-credentials in Europe.

From a European Union perspective, the promises of micro-credentials – skills development, lifelong learning and inclusivity – have been described in the 2020 European approach to micro-credentials and are part of a number of strategic EU documents, ranging from the European Skills Agenda and the Digital Education Action Plan (2021-2027) to the European Education Area and, most recently, the European Strategy for Universities.

The EU Council’s recommendation is a milestone in this process and sets the scene for further developments of micro-credentials in the European Union over the coming years, with the invitation to member states to report on progress to the European Commission by 2023 and a commitment for the commission to report to the council within five years of its adoption.

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