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New HEQCO report on microcredentials reveals they won’t be saving universities

Originally purported to be the ‘future’ of higher education, microcredentials are instead proving to be a messy undertaking.


Microcredentials have been one of the most buzzed about topics in higher education over the past several years. Quickly developed, ultra-short courses of study imparting a very specific skill or knowledge niche, microcredentials have rapidly proliferated far and wide. But there remains plenty of debate about whether they represent a radical new approach to higher education or are merely the latest pedagogical fad.

A new report published this past April by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario falls closer to the latter position than the former. Authored by HEQCO researchers Jackie Pickette and Rachel Courts, it found that the microcredentials delivered in Ontario so far tend mostly to offer a new gloss on traditional continuing education — but not much more.

“We understand there’s this broader call for microcredentials to do more or be more, but we don’t have evidence that’s happening — or that it needs to happen,” said Julia Colyar, vice-president of research and policy at HEQCO.

By “more,” Dr. Colyar is referring to some of the ambitious early ideas about what microcredentials could offer: affordable, accessible entry points into higher education, allowing students to acquire a personalized, stackable suite of credentials they can build toward comprehensive skills retraining, or even degrees.

The HEQCO report comes as provincial governments across Canada are spending huge amounts of money to support and develop microcredentials — sometimes without a clear sense of what their long-term goals are. Since 2020, Ontario has spent $60 million towards its own Micro-credentials Strategy, and the province is currently developing a quality assurance framework aimed at bringing some coherence to what is currently a haphazard landscape.

The report makes several recommendations for improving the province’s strategy. This includes collecting more thorough data on supply and demand to better understand which credentials learners are most interested in as well as who — demographically speaking — they are. It also recommends tracking completion rates and economic outcomes connected to microcredentials, such as earnings and job retention. First and foremost however, it encourages a focus on upskilling — supplementing existing skills workers may need to keep up in a fast-changing labour market — rather than using stacked pathways of microcredentials to comprehensively retrain workers.

“What we’re asserting is that  for the most part, students are interested in microcredentials for the same reasons they’re interested in traditional continuing education,” said Dr. Colyar. “That is really borne out when we look at things globally as well.”

One aspect the report did not address is why the more ambitious visions of microcredentials have failed to take off. One obvious problem is that in order to be stackable and integrated with traditional degree programming, microcredentials need to be assigned credit value. The very nature of microcredentials — developed quickly, sometimes in a matter of weeks —is anathema to the slow-moving approvals process that dominates academic governance. The result is that there has been little uptake in traditional academic spaces for them, along with some anxiety about the risk they could pose to academic quality.

One recent exception is at the University of Saskatchewan. “We’ve ended up positioning microcredentials somewhere in between continuing education and degree-credit programming,” said Nancy Turner, the university’s associate vice provost of teaching and learning.

USask’s microcredentials are still focused on industry and labour-market needs. A typical example is a course focusing on sustainable irrigation practices — important in an increasingly drought-stricken agricultural region. But last year, the university created an advisory board to make recommendations on specific proposed microcredentials, with representation from faculty and the university’s academic governance. The board then makes recommendations to the provost, and if the microcredential is approved, it is assigned a credit equivalency, amounting to something like a transfer credit which students can use in the completion of degree programs.

“We’re seeing a lot of continuing education simply rebranded as microcredentials,” she said. “For us microcredentials really should be distinct offerings, which have to include that stackability, connection to degree credit, as well as rigorous quality assurance. I think what we have is unique; I haven’t seen anything else like it in this country.”

That still falls short of another hypothetical benefit of microcredentials: the idea that courses could be stackable not just within but between universities; in other words, a student could assemble a variety of microcredentials from multiple institutions to build toward a larger credential. “That’s the gold standard, that you can stack them and move around institutions,” said Fiona McArthur, strategic project manager at Ontario Tech University.

Dr. McArthur points out that this stackability and portability would mark a huge change from the current approach in Canada. “You’d want to create a network of competency statements,” she said, “so each institution, for its credentials, would have a statement, and if it could be filled by a microcredential from another institution, that could be accepted.”

The quality assurance framework Ontario is putting together suggests something along these lines, though its final shape is still unclear. However, said HEQCO’s Dr. Colyar, no effective province-wide strategy can be developed without much better data on what’s being offered, what courses learners are interested in and what the outcomes of their studies look like. At the moment, that big picture overview is lacking.

“There’s a lot of pressure on institutions to provide a silver bullet, getting students into the labour market in the right way with the right skills,” said Dr. Colyar. “If government and families think [microcredentials] are the thing, but it remains so messy underneath, it’s a recipe for miscommunication. And that serves no one well.”

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  1. An academic worker / June 11, 2024 at 11:34

    Two sets of questions ignored both in the HEQCO report and in this article:

    (1) who is teaching these microcredential courses? And what is the effect on academic labour of increased microcredentialing? Tenured professorships at universities are already increasingly rare. Most teaching at universities is done by low-paid contract faculty who have no job security and no pension or benefits. Will the rise of microcredentials further erode academic work?

    (2) “Just in time” training was once the purview of private firms. Does a rise of microcredentials mean that business gets to offload that cost to universities and the public now picks up the tab (or anyway, part of the tab, since government transfers make up a progressively smaller piece of the funding pie)?