First universities were going to be turned upside by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and then by micro-credentials. I was asked whether micro-credentials were revolutionising education, and though I longed to look modern, I had to say no.

Initially, I was excited. A core function of universities is to help people to up-skill. With technology advancing faster than ever before, surely this is the time for life-long learning and for accessible, just-in-time micro-credentials?

Four years ago, I sat transfixed at the Universities Australia Conference, as the mesmerizing Jeffrey Bleich, a former US Ambassador, celebrated the importance of education in economic revival. Like many, I hoped that affordable micro-credentials would be the answer for individuals who wanted to re-skill or up-skill, and for regions that were affected by economic downturns. In fact, with on-line learning, I hoped micro-credentials might serve everyone, everywhere, from cradle to grave!

But despite the talk, micro-credentials seem slow in entering the educational landscape or university balance sheets.

I’m trying to work out why and think there are five reasons

* there have always been short courses. Universities offer graduate certificates (roughly half a year of study or four subjects). There are graduate diplomas (one year), and masters (often 2 years, but in the UK one year, and if you have a relevant first degree often less than 2 years here), and now undergraduate certificates and diplomas (about half a year, or one year). We could go smaller and offer one subject as a micro-credential, or give a badge per lecture, but the gains diminish (it’s hard to secure a good job with a micro-credential), and for universities the smaller the unit the harder it is to certify its quality or relevance.

* micro-credentials offer flexibility, but students are already drowning in flexibility. Even academic advisors get lost in course handbooks. Actually, you’ll notice “professional accreditation” and “majors” being emphasised to keep students on the complicated path to the mountain top of new skills. The idea of stackable micro-credentials only makes sense if all the components fit together.

* popular micro-credentials tend to be introductory. As education becomes more accessible the backgrounds of students become more varied. So, one offers introductory courses. Anyone can take introductory French, but you need pre-requisites for third-year French. If you want to work in the French embassy, you need a proper degree. Introductory, micro-credentials work as “try before you buy” or as traditional recognition of prior learning’ starters. While this is helpful, there are already so many introductory pathways, that it won’t drive an educational revolution.

* many introductory micro-credentials can be delivered by teaching-only private providers that have lower costs than universities and better systems for gathering short, repeat bookings. I have a micro-credential – my driving licence – but I did not go to Harvard and pay their fees to get it. It is the in- depth courses taught by experts at the cutting edge of their disciplines that are unique to universities. I keep hearing that universities are about to be disrupted, but it is very hard for competitors to replicate the deep knowledge that comes from years of academic focus. Conversely, it would be easy to disrupt a university that specialised in micro-credentials.

* education involves personal development, not just information snacking. It involves committing to a longer-term purpose, and striving to achieve within a community of like-minded students. If a course is too “micro” – neither the purpose, nor the community takes shape.

It is not that micro-credentials have nothing to offer. Modern courses on ethics and leadership, adult education in art and history, and selected specialist, advanced courses are worthwhile.

Then there is continuing professional development, an important opportunity, but limited. Many workers seek to advance their careers, not by gaining an external credential, but via in-house activities or training. Universities should be able to help re-skill the employees of big companies, or up-skill interns, but it will require carefully thought through approaches, beyond simply pointing to micro-credentials.

With so many courses (and MOOCs) on-line, some are free (possibly with ads), others will be offered at low prices by bulk providers, the big platforms will prosper. Universities may contribute as content providers to these platforms.

As we enter the age of post-COVID digital learning I’ll keep considering micro-credentials. But, I’ll be prioritising making part-time and full time online study ever more accessible, and carefully guiding students to and through proper degrees. I’ll also keep working to re-invigorate our physical campuses, for the sake of our onshore students.

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life



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