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Interview: Micro-credential Development in OECD countries

PUBLISHED ON: 29. February 2024

The interviewees, Roza Gyorfi and Shizuka Kato from the Organisationfor Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), were guests at the annual international conference of the agency held on 6 November 2023 on “Designing a QA model for micro-credentials.” The purpose of the event, which brought together a wide range of international and national experts in the field of micro-credentials, was to share experiences in this topical area and discuss the challenges that arise in the implementation of micro-credentials and the design of the most appropriate quality assurance systems in this field. Nataša Kramar and Gregor Rebernik from SQAA (NAKVIS) interviewed them.

NAKVIS: At the beginning, we would like to ask you for a brief overview of the OECD-EC Micro-credentials Implementation Project, especially the main objectives, and the anticipated benefits and outcomes from this project.

Shizuka Kato and Roza Gyorfi: Broadly speaking, the project aimed to provide technical assistance to EU Member States in developing national measures to implement the Council Recommendation on a European approach to micro-credentials for lifelong learning and employability. The main objectives were twofold. Firstly, strengthening the evidence base on the current and near-term potential of micro-credentials and related challenges, and secondly, outlining practical approaches and steps that EU Member States can take to deliver on that potential and address challenges.

So, when talking about the benefits for individual participating countries like Slovenia, participating in the project allowed the country to receive tailored analysis and advice based on the OECD’s international expertise, fostering national and international discussion, participation in a peer learning event, as well as broader support for national and international stakeholder engagement. In some countries, we also provided advice to support the development of the national measures, but in Slovenia, those were quite advanced already. Thus, we offered more support and advice on how to effectively implement the planned initiatives as well as how to identify and remedy potential pitfalls.

When we talk about the main benefits for the broader OECD community, we would like to mention synthesising the international knowledge base about micro-credentials, their efficacy, and common challenges. We also organised events to facilitate international peer learning, and through this, we identified a number of best practices in member states. The expectation was that through these, OECD countries become better equipped to respond to overall policy challenges, which micro-credentials broadly relate to, most notably the digital and green transitions.

The project had six key outputs. A concise guidance paper titled “Micro-credentials for Lifelong Learning and Employability: Uses and Possibilities[1]” was published in March 2023, which was followed by an online international knowledge exchange workshop. A series of national stakeholder workshops were then organised in four countries that participated in the project, namely Finland, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Spain. At the moment (at the time of this interview), we are focusing on a two-part series of summary papers[2]: the first on European and international trends in general, and the second focusing on case studies of the four participating countries. The first paper also includes a self-assessment tool that countries can use to facilitate micro-credential policy implementation. The last output will be a webinar sometime in early 2024.

NAKVIS: Which are the key insights and challenges that have emerged and could be relevant to Slovenia’s approach to micro-credentials?

We would like to start with the definition of micro-credentials because having a shared understanding is crucial. The OECD provides a broad definition with three key characteristics. Compared to traditional degree programmes, micro-credentials are smaller in volume, more targeted in terms of skills or study topics, and more flexible in delivery. They are typically seen as a tool to complement conventional forms of education and training and can result in stand-alone qualifications or be embedded in broader learning pathways that can support educational advancement, employment and wage improvement, or personal growth. Such a broad definition allows for the inclusion of already existing shorter programmes under the micro-credentials umbrella. When discussing volume, we observe that different national systems have different upper and lower ECTS limits, ranging from 1 ECTS as the lowest to 60 ECTS as the highest. When we talk specifically about Slovenia, the development of the national definition seems to be one of your major concerns.

Concerning development, we identify two types of micro-credential offerings in the OECD and G20 countries: independent offerings, where Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) offer micro-credentials on their own, and offerings in partnerships with other stakeholders. Many traditional shorter programmes are based on existing offerings and might result from unbundling degree programmes. In this project, we focused more on those cases where shorter programmes are offered in partnerships with employers or other stakeholders, which we believe is more relevant for Slovenia as well.

NAKVIS: So, the OECD doesn’t intend to develop any further guidelines regarding the more concrete structure of micro-credentials but leaves this authority to the countries themselves?

We need to keep in mind that the national context is always very particular. What works in Portugal won’t necessarily work in Slovenia, and what works in Slovenia may not work in Italy. Different contexts, legislative traditions, etc., vary, so the OECD isn’t planning to prepare definitive guidelines. However, one of the aforementioned deliverables of our project is the set of indicators, which will be part of the final paper and will serve as a self-assessment tool for policymakers in different countries. It is supposed to help policymakers think holistically about all the challenges related to developing a functioning national micro-credential ecosystem, including defining optimal regulations and guidelines, and ensuring that all relevant stakeholders have a clear idea of the concept and objectives.

At this stage, some countries are developing non-legally binding guidelines (such as Australia, the province of British Columbia in Canada, Malaysia and New Zealand), and others are going further by enacting legislative changes (e.g. Spain). It is possible that more countries will move towards enacting legislative changes as their micro-credential experiments mature. Then there are countries where the government supports collaborative efforts of providers to standardise micro-credential design. This served as the foundation for the creation of a national framework that can later possibly be reflected in legislation but started as a framework agreed amongst providers (such as Ireland and the Netherlands).

Another observation made regarding the size of micro-credentials was that shorter programmes, in general, can be helpful in quickly correcting minor skill deficits. However, longer programmes appear to be more successful at helping adults make greater career changes or redirect their careers. The national definitions of micro-credentials tend to be set to accommodate both types of programmes. In countries moving towards a stricter definition, the rationale often is to differentiate micro-credentials from already existing shorter educational provisions. For example, in Slovenia, there are already supplementary study programmes (študijski programi za izpopolnjevanje). In Spain, a recent Royal Decree differentiates between micro-credentials and the pre-existing non-degree programmes. The question for Slovenia is how to position micro-credentials in relation to existing short programmes, which appear to be quite established and specific to certain uses, such as teacher education or supporting specific occupations.

A third observation we made was that many recent initiatives in different countries emphasise industry relevance and stackability. Some countries opt for a stronger steering approach, while others emphasise encouragement. For example, in some countries, accreditation might depend on the involvement or endorsement of employers or industry partners, while in others, the funding mechanism might be tied to endorsement from industry partners.

NAKVIS: We find it interesting that different countries develop different definitions for micro-credentials, but it’s even more interesting that different stakeholders have taken the initiative to develop these definitions. In your opinion, which is the appropriate institution that should, let’s say, take the lead in this regard? Is it the Ministry? We noticed that in one instance, universities developed the definition, while in another, it could be the National Quality Assurance Agency. What is your opinion on this?

The OECD cannot say with certainty who should take the lead because we want to respect the national context and allow the country to decide on the best approach. We wouldn’t say there’s one single approach, but as you mentioned, in some countries, the quality assurance agency leads this process. In New Zealand, for example, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority set the definition and developed the guidelines, and universities follow that framework even though they have a self-accrediting status. So, their guidelines work as a national framework for all accredited education providers (including some alternative providers). A similar case exists in Malaysia, where the Malaysian Qualifications Agency developed the guidelines. In other cases, such as Australia, Canada, and Spain, the government prepared the framework. In Ireland and the Netherlands, universities themselves are working on developing their frameworks as part of their pilot work, and then it’s up to policymakers to decide on the way forward and how to formalise the findings or the framework developed through collaborative efforts.

We believe that Slovenia would benefit from having more discussions among smaller groups consisting of those involved in the pilot project led by the ministry and other key stakeholders such as NAKVIS. You could discuss and decide together on the various aspects mentioned before and formulate a recommendation for the ministry together. Slovenia has the advantage of being a small enough country to bring together many relevant stakeholders, thereby lending itself to a very collaborative approach similar to what we have seen in the Netherlands. Through this, you could move towards a more shared understanding of micro-credentials.

NAKVIS: What do you think are the critical success factors for implementing a micro-credentials system from the agency’s point of view, and where do you see our role?

There are two major points to consider: the lower risks associated with micro-credentials and the importance of keeping quality assurance mechanisms agile and flexible. Effective quality assurance involves striking the right balance to mitigate the risks of poor-quality programmes while also accounting for constraints that QA systems themselves hold. QA can be very costly and time-consuming both for agencies and education providers, and it may take some time to arrive at the right procedure. However, it should be kept in mind that micro-credentials need to be developed quickly to respond to emerging needs.

When we talk about the lower risks compared to degree programmes, it’s important to note that micro-credentials are shorter in duration. If providers charge fees, or fees are covered by public authorities, they can be lower. This means that we don’t necessarily have to apply the same standards or the same system to micro-credentials as we do to degree programmes. To keep the quality assurance system agile and flexible, agencies can give institutions the authority to offer programmes and take responsibility. In some cases, as seen in Estonia, Ireland, and New Zealand, QA agencies take different approaches to different providers. Sometimes universities or other formal education providers have increased autonomy, while other providers need to go through programme accreditation. In Estonia, they also use a field-specific quality assessment approach, whereby quality assessments and the accreditation they provide are specific to a particular field of study and once an HEI has the right to offer programmes in a certain field, they can also offer micro-credentials within that field.

Regarding the next steps for Slovenia, we recommend conducting a pilot quality evaluation of micro-credentials, similar to what Estonia, Ireland, Spain, and the United Kingdom have done. They conducted pilots on the quality assurance of micro-credentials before establishing standards. You may want to check the reports on micro-credentials from the ENQA Working Group and the IMINQA project, where they also include case studies. It is important to test your planned institutional approach, including with institutions that are not part of the pilot project.

NAKVIS: How do you think institutions in Slovenia can collaborate with the industry in the best way so that micro-credentials will address the needs of the job market?

Based on findings from previous projects over the course of the last 10 years, we already see a change in Slovenia. The ministry and the government have been working on making higher education programmes more relevant to the broader environment. As part of the micro-credential pilot, we spoke with all four participating HEIs, and some of them are very focused on responding to the needs of industries. The next step would be to provide more incentives or just create the basis for institutions through which they can offer programmes that are relevant to the environment. We understand that legislation is going to include lifelong learning as one of the missions, which would help and encourage Slovenian institutions to have it as one of their core missions as well.

One barrier is that hiring teachers from industry is challenging under the current legislation. If universities offer very academic programmes, it becomes more difficult to prepare graduates immediately for the labour market. It is quite challenging for academic staff to suddenly change the focus of their programmes. Consequently, it is beneficial to bring somebody from industry as a part-time lecturer to give students an overview of what’s needed in the labour market. You may want to consider allowing teachers or lecturers from industry to be part of the micro-credential initiative. This way, the industry will have more chances to know what’s happening in the higher education sector. In some countries, it’s mandated to have employer engagement or evidence of need from industry as part of the pilot. In Australia, for instance, they are also conducting a national pilot, and participating institutions or institutions receiving funding have to show evidence of industry support for their project. It’s a stricter approach compared to stating that micro-credentials should be labour market-relevant, but it’s up to institutions to decide what they do.

We observe that in the vocational education and training (VET) sector, they are more labour market-oriented. In the Netherlands, for instance, VET providers and industry partners jointly develop programme proposals for shorter courses. While this may not immediately apply to HEIs due to their different nature, it could be an example to consider in making programmes more labour market relevant.

NAKVIS: Have you encountered any examples of innovative approaches for funding micro-credentials?

As part of the survey conducted by the OECD within a related ongoing project, we also asked about the funding support available to providers. Approximately, two-thirds of the 29 responding jurisdictions mentioned having some form of public funding support for HEIs to offer micro-credentials or similar types of short programmes.

In Finland, for instance, the provision of open studies (modules of degree programmes) is considered part of the core public funding to HEIs. In this way, universities are incentivised to be more involved in continuous learning, although not necessarily in offering new micro-credential programmes.

Austria, France, Scotland, and other jurisdictions, are also developing or have developed individual learning accounts to support upskilling, reskilling, and lifelong learning. In France, a wide range of individuals receive a fixed amount of money for the purpose of training every year. Meanwhile, in Austria and Scotland, they target specific populations, such as those without higher education or those with lower incomes and provide them with specific funds for upskilling and reskilling.

NAKVIS: What about the technology and online learning platforms? What role do they play?

It’s essential to differentiate between digital tools used more generally for teaching and learning and information portals, in particular. Broadly speaking about digital teaching tools, these are not specific to micro-credentials, but they are highly applicable. They offer advantages by integrating new tools into higher education, allowing more people to participate and programmes to be more flexible. However, we must recognise that digital teaching and learning require a distinct quality assurance methodology. It’s not simply a matter of transferring offline teaching to online; we need to be aware of the advantages and limitations of the format, necessitating a change in methodology. One such limitation is that it’s more challenging to keep learners engaged, requiring additional support over the long term.

Regarding information portals, significant development has occurred in this area in recent years. These portals should serve as good starting points for individuals to explore the various offerings in institutions and they can be developed and maintained by different organisations. What all of these portals have in common is that they aim to be a starting point. In some countries, it’s a government initiative, such as in Australia, while in others, it’s a joint initiative of education providers. Some portals focus specifically on one type of provider. In Germany, for example, the German Rectors’ Conference developed a portal that lists all further education offerings of public and government-recognised HEIs across the country, including information on different learning types or some potential funding sources for these programmes. We think this is relevant for Slovenia as well, since your country has a lot of information on adult learning in various places. Still, there hasn’t been a national-level synthesis for offerings of HEIs and micro-credentials. Having such a centralised platform is crucial to raising awareness about these programmes among prospective learners.

NAKVIS: Lastly, we would like to know if you have encountered any considerations for ensuring the accessibility of disadvantaged and underrepresented populations to micro-credentials.

This is undoubtedly an important objective of the project. In the paper published last March (“Micro-credentials for Lifelong Learning and Employability: Uses and Possibilities”), there is a section that examines evidence regarding micro-credentials and their potential to support disadvantaged learners. This topic is increasingly prevalent in post-discussions across OECD countries. Again, there is a significant national context involved because disadvantaged learners vary widely from one country to another, and one must consider the specific hurdles they face. Addressing this is not easy, so it’s challenging to say that anyone has completely addressed it. This is evident in the data across the European Union, where those with lower-level education and lower socio-economic indicators are less likely to participate in lifelong learning. Often, they either seem unaware of it or don’t recognise the need for it. One of the key considerations is communication. Having a starting point: a website or portal is crucial. It is also important to ensure that people who don’t typically search the internet for upskilling and reskilling opportunities can learn about the offers and the available support. Because if they don’t hear about it, they won’t engage in it. So, one must put the information in their way.

Another consideration is financial resources when fees are involved. In Slovenia you have a well-funded public higher education system, and many assume that education is free, making paying fees less appealing for many. Even when they do, one must be mindful of the strain that fees can put on the incomes of specific disadvantaged groups, including indirect financial costs such as travel or study materials. For online courses, there’s still a need for decent ICT equipment and infrastructure. Non-financial factors also play a role: people need to have sufficient time that is free of other responsibilities, such as childcare and elderly care, and they need to have it at the right time slots which can require explicit employer support. Indications show that employer support is crucial for people finding the time and energy to engage in lifelong learning. Those lacking specific employer support are less likely to complete or even start a lifelong learning opportunity. Encouraging employers to be more supportive is possible through cultural changes aimed at making employers understand that employees need time for this. There are also possibilities for tax incentives or absentee pay, as seen in Singapore, where employers get reimbursed for the employee’s salary during continuous learning.

Returning to the theme of communication, a niche example, which perhaps is not the most relevant for Slovenia but can still illustrate well how to approach a specific group: in Germany, an NGO focuses on providing education programs specifically for refugees and displaced persons. To reach these specific populations, they tailored their communication to the channels used by refugees and displaced persons, chiefly phone apps and collaborating with, and getting organisations trusted by these groups to share information about their programmes.

In conclusion, adjusting the style of communications for disadvantaged and underrepresented populations is essential.

[1] OECD (2023), “Micro-credentials for lifelong learning and employability: Uses and possibilities”, OECD Education Policy Perspectives, No. 66, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9c4b7b68-en.

[2] OECD (2023), “Public policies for effective micro-credential learning”, OECD Education Policy Perspectives, No. 85, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/a41f148b-en.

OECD (2023), “Micro-credential policy implementation in Finland, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Spain”, OECD Education Policy Perspectives, No. 86, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/c3daa488-en.