The global appetite for micro-credentials could have a downside, denying students the underpinning knowledge they need to survive and thrive in an unpredictable future, critics have warned.
Following the release of a report on the qualifications in Australia, University of Toronto tertiary education researcher Leesa Wheelahan said that higher education around the world risked becoming infected by the “insidious philosophies” that have led to the “dumbing down” of vocational education qualifications in her native Australia.
Professor Wheelahan likened micro-credentials to skill sets, an increasingly popular form of Australian training aimed at teaching tasks rather than trades. She said the approach deskilled workers and reduced their wages and conditions.
“A lot of the rhetoric about micro-credentials and digital badges is that people should be able to build degrees by aggregating all these bits,” Professor Wheelahan, a professor in Toronto's Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education, told Times Higher Education. “This is a fragmented vision in which the total is the sum of parts.
“It undermines the role of degrees [in] preparing individuals for work and life by engaging with a deep and sustained body of work, knowledge and skills.”
An Australian report released earlier this month urges the country’s universities, industry and government to support micro-credentials as a way of helping students cope with technology’s impacts on jobs and industries.
“Australia needs educational pathways that are flexible and modular,” says the report by consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Australian Technology Network of Universities. “Micro-credentials allow for effective modularised learning to meet the needs of lifelong learning.
“It is not suggested that micro-credentials will replace traditional offerings but rather supplement them. Combining universities’ expertise in rigorous learning and critical thinking with the flexibility of micro‑credentials gives a pathway well-suited to the future needs of work.”
The report cites “micromasters” and “nanodegrees” offered by the likes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, online educator Udacity and ATN member universities Curtin and RMIT.
“RMIT Creds range from 30-minute snippets to several hours of learning which can be stacked or clustered to create more extensive programs,” the report says. “Where appropriate, they embed into in a formal program of study.”
The ATN is developing a national portal to “showcase” its members’ micro-credentials, short courses and massive open online courses.
Professor Wheelahan said she was not opposed to substantial top-up credentials such as graduate certificates. “These are long enough to enable sustained learning,” she said.
“If something is to qualify as higher education, it should require individuals to engage in debates and controversies in that field [to] develop perspectives as practitioners. Micro-skills training is just that – training – and this is not why we have invested in universities.”
Professor Wheelahan was scathing about bite-sized courses in the vocational training sector, saying they benefited bosses at the expense of their staff. “It provides employers with opportunities to pay less for workers who install windows or stairs, for example, compared to employing carpenters.
“It undermines workers’ autonomy. All the data show that qualifications matter for getting, keeping and being promoted in good jobs.”
New Zealand has announced that its qualifications authority will begin approving micro-credentials from the end of August.