Australia pioneers ‘stacking’ of microcredentials into degrees

Lego model of the Sydney Opera House being constructed as a metaphor for microcredentials

Source: Getty

Scale up: a ‘microcredentials marketplace’ will allow learners to build up credits

Australia is pioneering the stacking of microcredentials into more illustrious qualifications as the pandemic injects urgency into the roll-out of lifelong learning.

The Sydney-based Universities Admissions Centre (UAC) has won a federal government tender to develop Australia’s first online “microcredentials marketplace”, allowing people to appraise short courses and how they can be combined into full degrees.

The microcredentials marketplace, which will take about two years to develop, will provide a nationally consistent platform so that students can compare course outcomes, duration, delivery mode and credit point value. It is being funded by a A$4.3 million (£2.3 million) grant announced in mid-2020 by Dan Tehan, who was then education minister, after dozens of universities had rolled out short online courses supported by Canberra’s higher education relief package.

The heavily discounted courses proved popular with Australians who found themselves with time on their hands because of the pandemic’s impacts. “Microcredentials address the most common barriers cited by adult workers who are not intending to undertake further formal training or study: time and cost,” Mr Tehan said at the time.

Separately, the UAC has signed up its first client for an academic credit management system that helps university applicants calculate how much advanced standing they will receive for previous qualifications.

A 2019 study commissioned by the UAC found that the management of academic credit was extraordinarily frustrating for staff and students alike. Inefficient processes, inconsistent terminology and erratic judgements were costing Australian universities about A$37 million a year – A$125 per application – and adding as much as two months to the university admissions process.

Kim Paino, general manager of marketing and engagement at the UAC, said waste of that scale was no longer sustainable. But the main driver for both initiatives was a policy push for lifelong learning, where people of all ages could take short courses to address immediate skill deficits and pursue full degrees when it suited them.

The UAC is one of five tertiary admissions centres – along with counterparts in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth – that traditionally serve school-leavers in their respective states. But this work is in decline as mature-aged applicants in particular bypass admissions centres and apply directly to universities, forcing the centres to compete directly with each other and introduce new services.

Ms Paino said the credit management system would take about a year to bed down, starting with its implementation at Melbourne’s Victoria University (VU), which has vowed to introduce it later this year. She said dual-sector institutions such as VU, which deliver both higher education degrees and vocational education and training (VET) certificates and diplomas, would particularly benefit from a more systematic approach to credit management.

While many reviews had highlighted VET as a “legit pathway” in its own right, participation had been hamstrung by the lack of clarity around how VET qualifications could articulate into higher education degrees.

Ms Paino said the “explosion” in microcredentials had dovetailed with the lifelong learning push and the need to make information more accessible to students. She said that while the two UAC initiatives would begin as stand-alone platforms, they could eventually be combined with each other and other university systems.

The long-term aim was for a “seamless” service where students could scan courses, assess how much credit they offered, weigh up their employment prospects and lodge applications.

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