If you’re one of those unfortunate people who follows the federal lobbying scene, you’ll have noticed that all of the PSE stakeholder groups, one way or another, are currently pitching micro-credentials to the feds either as “a contribution” PSE institutions are making to skills acquisition in the country (CICan) or as something the government should pay for by tacking on some kind of voucher to the CERB (Universities Canada, U15, and Polytechnics Canada).
I have three reactions to this. First, it’s great because micro-credentials are important and it’s good the postsecondary sector is paying attention. Second, it’s hilarious because of the naked opportunism involved. And third, it’s eye-roll inducing because there is not enough thinking going on about how to make micro-credentials actually work. (See the notice below if you want info on some research on how to make these work).
Let’s take those in order.
First: micro-credentials – that is to say, a credential which denotes proficiency with a certain set of skills/competencies but is shorter in duration than a post-secondary certificate – are a potentially interesting advance in the way adult learning is organized and delivered. By decreasing the length of time required to get a meaningful credential, micro-credentials serve a potentially large market for people who lack the time for a traditional credential (this is especially true in the post-baccalaureate market). Institutions have been slow to look at these kinds of credentials because they can cannibalize existing markets (such as professional master’s programs), but they have a lot of potential to reach older learners. Since we aren’t making young learners like we used to, more institutions are thinking about this.
Now to the hilarity. First, it’s implicit from how the “asks” are worded that universities are fine with micro-credentials as long as someone else is paying for them. And by someone else, they clearly mean government, not potential learners. So, it’s not completely clear that they actually see these as being things that might attract learners. Certainly, their enthusiasm for micro-credentials now stands in contrast to yawns that greeted the feds when they introduced the Canada Training Credit last year, which was pretty much 100% designed to incentivize micro-credentials. But now that there is a COVID-generated employment crisis and government wants everyone to be thinking about skills. Now, suddenly post-secondary education associations are all over it, provided someone else is paying. Pure Ottawa hilarity.
And now to the eye-rolling: short micro-credentials for upskilling would have been a really good idea if they had been ready six months ago. That would have given people something to do during those months when unemployment doubled and everyone was locked inside their house. Now, it’s different. If we’re in a long but shallow recession then it’s not obvious that short credentials are more useful than long ones, and if the recovery is very short (the so-called V-shaped recovery), then it’s not clear that re-skilling is going to be any more useful than usual. And in any case, most of the unemployment right now is among lower-income brackets with lower levels of education. That’s not a group that universities are particularly good at reaching. So while the push makes sense for the polytechnics, public servants have to worry that universities are going to grab the money intended for training the unemployed and come up with a bunch of stackable post-baccalaureate credentials for folks who weren’t terribly inconvenienced by the pandemic in the first place.
(That is, if they can get them to market at all before the end of 2021. Universities are notoriously slow at developing new programs, and many have made their response capacity worse by axing continuing education faculties over the last two decades. Places like York and Ryerson will do very well over the next couple of years because they maintained their continuing education investment, but there are a number that will have real trouble in this area).
Finally, there is the whole issue of recognition. Adult learners aren’t going to spend time or money on these new credentials unless it looks like employers will recognize them and reward holders with higher salaries/better promotion chances (our research gets into this a bit). That can’t happen unless employers understand what a “micro-credential” is, and that’s literally impossible right now because no one can agree what they mean. In some places (McMaster, for instance) the term doesn’t even refer to an actual credential but rather to what some people call “badges”; that is, something that acts as a co-curricular record rather than an actual credential. If the term is not standardized, and if there is no quality control on the new credentials, employers won’t acknowledge it, period. And there goes your market.
As I have explained on previous occasions, Canadian universities are REALLY BAD at agreeing to common standards. Like, Detroit Lions bad. Godfather III bad. And provincial governments aren’t much better at imposing them because with only one or two exceptions, they have too little expertise to regulate the system they nominally oversee. I have heard that Ontario has been consulting closely with universities and colleges on this over the summer to develop a common definition (which, if true, is the most useful thing the Ford government has done in higher education), but it’s not clear to me that micro-credentials are going to work if every province has its own definition. Big employers don’t care about provincial boundaries: they want solutions that work everywhere they do.
Which is why it is worth watching what happens in the European Union with respect to micro-credentials. It is the largest jurisdiction working on a common framework and as a result, I suspect they are going to set the global standard. There are lots of interesting experiments in micro-credentials in the US, but they are all over the place and it does not yet look as though we are promptly headed for a settled common definition. This isn’t to say we should wait on and copy a European definition, but it is to say that whatever we come up with can’t be wildly out of line with whatever comes out of the EU.
The bottom line is: for micro-credentials to succeed, we have to think about them as a long game, not a quick fix. We have to think of them in part as a collective project rather than as a wild west. And we cannot ignore what is going on globally. Any lobbying plan or government intervention in this area that does not recognize these three factors should be dismissed as gimmickry