Why we need a new model for professional development credentials

Close collaboration between universities and industry can help higher education address the ‘skills emergency’ and rebuild trust in university qualifications, writes Mick Grimley

Mick Grimley's avatar
22 Sep 2023
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Online learning in project management

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The education landscape has been cataclysmically disrupted – first by new technologies and then by the Covid-19 pandemic. Those looking to learn a skill or acquire knowledge are faced with myriad options, from YouTube videos to massive open online courses (Moocs), industry-provided courses to higher education options. The choice of provider is huge, too, and the types (and quality) of courses are incredibly varied.

Meanwhile, governments and industry are crying out for new skills, referring to a global “skills emergency”. Statistics from the World Economic Forum in 2020 suggested that by 2025, 40 per cent of workers will need reskilling and 94 per cent of business leaders believe employees will have to develop new skills on the job; the report also posits that, by 2025, 97 million new jobs will evolve or emerge.

Such dramatic changes have added to the idea that the value of generic university degrees is falling. Employers perceive university graduates as being less employable and often lacking the skills and knowledge required for the industries they are entering. Modern employers are asking for better skills and more “soft skills” as part of higher education.

How microcredentials can bridge knowledge gaps

In Aotearoa New Zealand, higher education is responding to these disruptive changes – we see that shorter professional development courses and microcredentials have huge potential to bridge these skills and knowledge gaps.

Our research and our students’ feedback suggest that most adult learners require flexibility to fit study into their working lives alongside other family commitments, therefore being able to study online in smaller units is essential. Further, broadening the reach (via online delivery) provides a more commercially sustainable solution for universities to deliver such courses in the longer term.

At the University of Canterbury (UC), for example, we offer more than a dozen microcredentials, ranging from academic writing to instructional design and well-being, and demand is strong. For those considering developing short courses with limited resources, this can be done in line with larger course development and might be part of a bigger programme; break courses into smaller units that have industry, iwi (a Māori community of people) or community demand, for example.

Microcredentials are not Moocs

Globally, education has been shifting towards bite-sized chunks of learning, typically online and characterised by the rise of Moocs from online platforms such as edX, Coursera, FutureLearn and Udacity, to name a few. Microcredentials are often conflated with Moocs, but the latter span a much wider selection of course types and can be short online courses covering any topic. Microcredentials are more vocationally oriented and aimed at supporting the learner to upskill or reskill from an employment perspective and are not always delivered online.

Aotearoa New Zealand moved early, in 2018, to embed microcredentials into the national qualifications framework (NZQF) and to provide a process for designing and developing microcredentials that can be delivered by all the country’s higher education providers. We define a microcredential as “smaller than a full qualification”. Such courses recognise “a discrete set of skills that meet specific learner, employer, industry or iwi needs”. The process to get a microcredential listed and funded by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) involves a fairly rigorous application process that includes industry endorsements to indicate demand for that particular skill. For New Zealand institutions, it is therefore prudent to contact the TEC early to discuss the proposal and to ensure employers are willing to substantiate demand.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, an official microcredential is five to 40 credits in size, or 50 to 400 learning hours. Microcredentials tend to focus on skills and new knowledge not typically taught in longer higher education programmes. So another way to mitigate the skills gap that is growing between more traditional programmes and industry/community need (given the accelerated pace of new skills and knowledge) could be to build in relevant skills early in programme design.

What industry gets from the partnership

As a result of regulations, only an approved education provider can offer microcredentials. However, industry and other organisations can partner with a provider to design, develop and deliver a microcredential. This allows employers and other organisations to co-design microcredentials for their own context – something that is often missing in traditional courses and programmes – rather than relying on offerings from HE providers.

For example, UC partnered with Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency to deliver a microcredential in project management. This partnership has had high success rates and overwhelmingly positive feedback. The industry partner has confirmed that online delivery has allowed them to increase the capability of their project managers, consider a career development framework and attract new talent into a field that is difficult to resource.

UC has been developing online short courses and microcredentials that align with industry, iwi and community needs for less than 12 months. Our experience is that employers are desperate for a credible way to upskill their employees in the form of online bite-sized units of learning from trusted institutions such as universities. If ever the world needed professional development in the form of trusted credentials, it is now.

Mick Grimley is dean of future learning and development at the University of Canterbury.

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