Micro-credentials ‘permanent fixture’ in Australia post-pandemic

Short courses to be bankrolled through flexibly applied institutional funding ‘envelopes’

June 24, 2020
magnifying glass micro mini micro-credential
Source: iStock

Micro-credentials appear set to become a core feature of publicly funded higher education in Australia, after education minister Dan Tehan praised universities’ willingness to deliver short-form offerings during the coronavirus pandemic.

But experts have warned universities not to embrace bite-sized courses that teach narrowly focused skills without broader occupational and societal context.

Most Australian universities moved quickly to deliver the cut-price online courses unveiled by Mr Tehan as part of his April higher education relief package. For as little as A$1,250 (£693), students can undertake six-month courses that count towards full bachelor’s or master’s degrees.

Most universities did not limit places in these courses, even if it meant running them at a loss at a time when their finances were already severely constrained by the coronavirus.

Universities hoped that Mr Tehan would announce more secure funding arrangements for micro-credentials when he addressed the National Press Club on 19 June. Instead of unveiling a dedicated funding stream, he indicated that they would be financed in the same way as other types of courses.

Universities had already been given the “flexibility” to rearrange their bachelor’s, diploma and postgraduate places within their individual funding allocations, he said. “We want short courses to be a permanent fixture of the Australian higher education system, and lock in the flexibility for providers,” Mr Tehan said.

“Micro-credentials address the most common barriers cited by adult workers who are not intending to undertake further formal training or study: time and cost.”

An education department discussion paper suggests that micro-credentials will be bankrolled under a “new funding envelope” for commonwealth-supported university places, to be developed over the next five years.

It says that the government will spend A$3.1 million to implement recommendations of last year’s review of the Australian Qualifications Framework, partly to foster “better recognition and greater uptake of micro-credential qualifications”.

Separately, the government has committed A$4.3 million for a “one-stop-shop for micro-credentials”, offering students a “nationally consistent platform to compare course outcomes, duration, mode of delivery and credit point value” – although it has been suggested that the government’s Course Seeker website already provides this service.

Catherine Friday, lead government and health sciences partner with consultants Ernst & Young Australia, said that micro-credentials had “tremendous” value – but mostly as complementary units for existing students rather than stand-alone alternatives to traditional degrees.  

“It would be a mistake to expect that we would see students just wanting to do micro-credentials without some of the other deep technical learning,” she said.

University of Technology historian Tamson Pietsch and University of Toronto tertiary education researcher Leesa Wheelahan say that the micro-credentials push was part of a broader drive to arm people with “21st-century skills” instead of occupations.

Writing in The Conversation, they say that skills mean different things in different contexts. For example, childcare workers dealing with tantrums need vastly different problem-solving skills from oil workers trying to put out a fire. “It is not possible to teach problem-solving or other skills independently of occupations,” Dr Pietsch and Professor Wheelahan warn.

Sin Yin Long, an education specialist with Ernst & Young, said most employers were not yet ready to give people jobs on the strength of their micro-credentials. “But maybe I see that happening in the future,” she said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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