Are universities the best place to earn micro-credentials?

As the hype about micro-credentials increases in the context of higher education, we need to ask ourselves what the role of universities should be in the modern age.

According to the European Commission, a micro-credential is a record of learning outcomes gained as a result of short-term learning experiences. These learning outcomes are assessed against transparent and clearly defined standards. Courses leading to micro-credentials are designed to provide the learner with specific knowledge, skills and competencies that respond to societal, personal, cultural or labour market needs.

There are at least five specific objectives of learning through micro-credentials: acquisition of knowledge, acquisition of skills and-or competences, lifelong learning, life-wide learning, and employment preparation.

Disciplinary knowledge

The crucial question to consider therefore is: are universities capable of providing learning across these five diverse objectives of learning?

Firstly, it is an unavoidable fact that universities are among the oldest institutions in human civilisation and have traditionally been rooted in the domain of specific disciplinary knowledge.

In a nutshell, the universities generate new knowledge and expand existing knowledge through research, disseminate knowledge through teaching and document it in different journals and repositories. Thus, the expertise of the university is very much centred on the domain of disciplinary knowledge and partially on its application.

However, the development of skills and competencies is a different game altogether. Unlike academic and disciplinary knowledge which the learner can apply to different contexts, the development of skills is context-based with skills being defined as knowing how to do things.

Using the example of reasoning skills, Michael Eraut, a renowned professor of professional and workplace learning, described a master as being someone who is able to assess the ideas underlying a particular argument.

Similarly, competency is a capability that is conceptually rooted within a certain job context and the development of competencies is a major part of employment preparation. The elephant in the room is whether universities are the best place to develop skills and job competencies and to prepare students for employment.

The discourses of lifelong and life-wide learning practices are also fundamentally different.

On the one hand, lifelong education is a timeless paradigm of learning. However, university education has remained rigidly framed around the concept of time. At least at the current juncture, it is almost impossible to envision university education removing that time factor and becoming more flexible.

On the other hand, life-wide education is a paradigm of learning beyond the specific boundaries of a learning programme, but university education continues to be structured around an imagined disciplinary boundary.

Are universities flexible enough?

Importantly, both lifelong and life-wide education are highly individualistic and driven by personal interests and needs. Can the current structure of university education accommodate such flexibility when university education continues to struggle to adapt to a personalised form of education?

Unpacking the different objectives of learning underlying the concept of micro-credentials is important for us to critically assess the suitability of universities in providing these learning experiences and to reimagine higher education through micro-credentials.

It is equally important to recognise that the structure of a university is fundamentally established to provide knowledge-based academic programmes, especially at the undergraduate level.

The expertise of educators continues to be based on a discipline-based research doctorate as the basic qualification to work in a university. There is almost no room for considering non-academic-related skills and competencies when it comes to hiring teaching staff at a university.

Similarly, the various processes needed to develop the content of courses, assess learners’ acquisition of knowledge, assure consistency of provision and govern these academic programmes in a university continue to centre around academic and disciplinary expertise. In almost all universities, the senate – a congregation of professors in a university – has remained the highest authority governing academic programmes.

Recognising limitations

Thus, while we recognise the diversity of learning objectives underlying micro-credentials, it is very important to also recognise the limitations of the university in this endeavour.

Equally crucial, there is a dire need for all stakeholders to be flexible and adventurous, not only when it comes to accommodating but also recognising new modes of learning and providers as we embark on a more comprehensive and inclusive form of learning credentialism through micro-credentials.

Additionally, the development of skills and competencies requires a concerted and consolidated effort on the part of multiple institutions in the post-secondary education sector, including polytechnics and vocational and training institutes, which need to join with businesses and corporations to provide the latest and most up-to-date knowledge.

Lifelong and life-wide learning also suggests the need for more diverse providers, not only formal mainstream institutions like universities, but learning facilitated by alternative informal and non-formal providers. After all, as the saying goes, life is the best teacher, and I would add, learning is not limited to the institutions we call universities.

Wan Chang Da is adjunct professor at the National Higher Education Research Institute (IPPTN) at the Universiti Sains Malaysia.