The need for higher education and ongoing skills development is increasing. People are living longer, working longer, and many of the traditional middle-income jobs are being replaced by higher-skilled, higher-paid roles that take advantage of automation and computer power. Existing qualifications work well for those that are lucky enough to get them at the right time but there are many poeple that need an easier entry point and more flexible delivery to take advantage of what universities can offer.

Higher education participation for 18-year-olds is at an all-time high in the UK and set to grow in line with the increasing numbers of young people. Three-year full-time Undergraduate and one year full-time Postgraduate degrees have worked to prepare students for the workplace and as signals of capability that employers understand and trust. Most universities have worked hard over the last five to ten years to work closely with employers to make qualifications more relevant and invested in training staff to improve the quality of instruction to make the courses more accessible to a broader set of students. 

Still, many people in the workforce need knowledge, skills, and behaviours as well and qualifications that signal these capabilities. This need may be to maintain high paid positions as they are digitally transformed or to transition from middle-income roles to higher-income ones that require a greater level of specific knowledge. More importantly, study is needed to get out of low-income positions into more profitable and fulfilling careers. Once working full-time and starting a family, barriers to full-time qualifications including money, time, energy, ability, and insufficient entry criteria stop people from taking the first step to get on existing part-time programmes with 5-8 year commitments.

Smaller qualifications more flexibly delivered 

In the Higher Education National Credit Framework for England, one credit is equal to 10 notional learning hours. Notional learning hours includes all the time a student would spend working towards achieving the credit from the contact time, activities, essential and recommended reading, and working on assessments. 

An undergraduate degree is worth 360 credits or 3600 notional hours of learning at Level 4,5, and 6 and can be achieved in a maximum of 8 years. A masters degree is 180 credits at level 7 and can be completed in a maximum of 5 years. These can currently be further broken down into certificates (60 credits at Masters level and 120 credits at Undergraduate level) and Diploma (120 credits at Masters level and 240 credits at Undergraduate level)

The full qualifications at Undergraduate and Postgraduate level are still needed, and demand for these delivered as full-time campus-based courses continues to grow. Something additional is required for those that do not take this traditional route.

Micro-credential: A Sub-unit of a credential or credentials (could be micro, meso, mini, etc.) that could accumulate into larger credentials or be part of a portfolio


New, smaller, and more flexibility delivered qualifications are needed that are interoperable with the established larger awards. These micro-credentials should take advantage of the long-established and trusted existing signals of achievement and provide the opportunity to stack them into full Undergraduate or Postgraduate qualifications. Micro-credentials should be delivered in a way that removes current barriers and where possible awards credit for prior knowledge and skills.

What is needed?

Microcredentials need to be credit-bearing for the signal to employers of their value, smaller than an existing qualification, and flexibly delivered to fit around existing barriers and commitments. It must be possible to stack several micro-credentials together to gain a current, recognisable, formal qualification or used as entry criteria for full degrees or Masters degrees. 

Many universities have started to deliver ten credit micro-credentials over ten weeks for a total of ten hours per week of study. Two of these short courses could be put together to form the first module of a full qualification or six of these at level 7 could be used to gain a Certificate at Masters level. 

Professor Beverley Oliver in the paper ‘Making micro-credentials work‘ recommends requirements for students and providers to implement micro-credentials.

  • Learners require:
    • Certification of new and prior learning
    • Consultation about future work and education
    • The facility to stack and bank lifelong learning credit
  • Employers, policymakers, and providers require:
    • Definitions. standards, credit framework
    • Partnerships for learning-integrated work
    • A sustainable system of funding and incentives
    • Well-planned national strategies created in partnership

There is an enormous opportunity for providers to create some inspiring opportunities for students that do not have the knowledge, skills, or behaviours they need. This might be due to not getting the chance to study a traditionally delivered HE qualification at 18 or to improve their abilities to get more out of their career. The question of whether these qualifications sit within existing Universities alongside traditionally delivery or in new purpose build specialist providers remains.

Get in touch with me on Twitter if you have any questions or want to discuss any of the ideas presented here.

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