Vice-chancellor questions Australia’s embrace of microcredentials

Analysts are enthusiastic about microcredentials but unsure about their suitability in universities

July 5, 2023
A staff member checks a mini train at Cockington Green Gardens in Canberra, Australia to illustrate Vice-chancellor questions Australia’s embrace of microcredentials
Source: Alamy

Australia’s embrace of microcredentials has raised concerns about their viability for universities and their utility for individuals.

Andrew Parfitt, vice-chancellor of the University of Technology Sydney, said the bite-sized courses had value as “packages of learning” for businesses. But he was sceptical about universities delivering “ultra-cheap” qualifications “in isolation”.

“It makes sense to package them up for a company or group of companies,” Professor Parfitt said. “It’s much harder to see a business model where you sell them direct to individuals. We’re not exactly low-cost organisations.”

He said cybersecurity exemplified the value of microcredentials. While people in charge of information security required the “deep” expertise furnished by degrees, short courses made sense for regular workers. “More and more, every staff member is taking responsibility for cybersecurity and needs to understand something about it.

“[Microcredentials] have to have value…for employing or developing staff. Done in isolation, I’m not sure that there’s a long-term benefit.”

Queensland’s state government appears to agree, having injected another A$5.9 million (£3.1 million) into its Micro-Credentialing Pilot Programme in its June budget. The scheme, which began in 2020, bankrolls the development of short courses to help businesses adopt new practices and overcome skill gaps. 

At the federal level, 18 universities are sharing A$2 million to fund the development of short courses in areas ranging from phonics, middle school leadership and “Einsteinian physics for school teachers” to food fermentation, infonet security and “net zero engineering fundamentals”.

The courses, produced under the Microcredentials Pilot in Higher Education programme, will be co-designed with industry. Universities will be invited to tender for another A$16.5 million to fund the delivery of the new qualifications to 4,000 students.

Australian National University policy specialist Andrew Norton has criticised government intervention in a sector that seemed to be thriving without it. He says short, uncredentialed courses have long been the most common form of tertiary education, bankrolled primarily by employers who saw no need for regulation, and only produce a tiny fraction of university revenue. 

Professor Norton was particularly critical of Canberra’s move to extend government-backed loans to students of the courses developed under its microcredentials pilot programme. He said the initiative risked distorting the short course market, and most students do not need help paying fees that are fairly insignificant and often covered by their bosses anyway.

The government has been accused of generating a distorted view of short courses by funding an online microcredentials directory that only includes offerings from higher education providers, about half of which are universities. 

The Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia (Iteca) says the new platform overlooks the 99 per cent of short courses offered by vocational training colleges, industry associations, professional bodies and businesses. “Not only did this initiative fall short of its intended goals but it also squandered taxpayer funds,” Iteca complained

A Senate estimates committee heard that the government had spent A$4.3 million in developing the platform, which was only scheduled to operate for a year, and conducting related research. “That is an extraordinary amount of money,” said shadow education minister Sarah Henderson.

Extra funding has since been injected to keep the platform running until the Universities Accord has reported its recommendations. “Microcredentials are being discussed in great detail in the accord process,” the committee heard.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles