Microcredentials, not short courses, should drive lifelong learning plans

Disappointing results from pilot scheme indicate a focus on 10-credit modules, rather than 30-credit courses, is the way forward, says Annabel Kiernan

February 26, 2023
lifelong learning
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The Lifelong Learning Bill is making its way through Parliament, with the aim of creating a new method of calculating the maximum fees higher education providers can charge when England’s lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) is introduced in 2025.

The bill sets out a number of important principles; it connects loan funding to credits, rather than years of study, and introduces the notion of a “course year”. It aims to make the cost of studying modules and short courses at levels 4 to 6 proportionate to the fee cap for full undergraduate study, currently £9,250 per year, as we recommended in our report last year.

By not defining how many credits constitute a module, the bill provides the basic architecture for making small units of study stack up into bigger modules and potentially full qualifications. This allows the flexibility for higher education institutions to design bite-sized courses that can provide alternative routes to higher education for adult learners and an important pathway for lifelong learning. 

The government sees this important piece of legislation as the key to boosting higher technical skills and driving up adult participation in learning through part-time study. However, despite the apparent demand from employers for smaller, more flexible learning and an appetite among learners for this type of provision, the experience of the government’s short-course £2 million pilot tells a different story.

The Higher Education Short Course trial was a key test of the LLE, which will provide access to loans equivalent to four years of post-18 education, currently valued at £37,000, and which can be drawn down at any stage in life. Staffordshire University participated in the trial but, like other providers, has struggled to attract learners on to these courses.

There are numerous reasons for this. It is certainly the case that designing and promoting short courses in a relatively limited period of time has not been ideal in stimulating demand. This provision is untested and unproven. While adult learners might like the idea of learning, they are less keen on the idea of a loan, especially one that might not yield an immediate return on their investment. But it is also possible that these short courses, amounting to 30 credits, might not be the right offer to ignite demand among adult learners.

In contrast, our preliminary work around microcredentials leads me to conclude that microcredentials may be the right size and shape of “qualifications” needed to further test demand for a flexible skills, training and education system.

Whereas short courses are designed to be studied part time over 12 weeks or more, students can complete a microcredential over 100 hours to fit around other commitments. With microcredentials, each worth 10 credits, there is also a keener focus on in-demand subjects and skills and these can be undertaken as stand-alone qualifications or stacked to build credit.

Being a better fit around full-time employment, these micro-courses enable individuals to upskill and progress in a more flexible way. These in turn will generate the demand for continued learning and the LLE, engaging businesses more directly with higher educational opportunities available to their employees.

The Lifelong Learning Bill is a welcome and long-awaited piece of legislation, and including microcredentials in the LLE as the basic building block to learning will support the government’s reforms to post-18 education. This will allow more people to access, and potentially stick with, high-quality courses that meet the needs of employers and future skills gaps.

To ensure higher-level skills acquisition, we also believe that the value of a Staffordshire University microcredential comes not only from our digitally enabled and innovative courses, but the fact that they will be offered through a hybrid online and face-to-face approach, allowing individuals direct access to our excellent on-campus facilities and our phenomenon-based learning method.

Fundamentally, Staffordshire’s microcredentials are being developed with an understanding of the local labour market, informed by business needs. We are confident that microcredentials can be used to bridge the access gap into higher education and degree qualifications through non-traditional pathways. This is a key intervention for providers looking to develop their access and participation plan.

But the big barrier to microcredentials remains lack of awareness. Our research with ResPublica and the British Chambers of Commerce found that 83 per cent of business respondents were not aware of microcredentials.

So, to make flexible learning work through the LLE, we need to do more to raise awareness. Piloting shorter “micro” units of accredited learning that can stack to additional qualifications is the next logical step. Pitched at a bite-sized price, microcredentials will also be an affordable and less risky investment.

In his role as chair of the Lifelong Education Commission, Chris Skidmore has been a huge champion of microcredentials, which he believes “could offer a rapid injection of higher-level skills into low wage economies”.

However, we need others in government and the Department for Education to start publicly recognising their potential. This may prove the catalyst we need to develop microcredentials in collaboration with local skills improvement plans to meet identified skill gaps and support growth.

Annabel Kiernan is pro vice-chancellor (academic) at Staffordshire University.

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Reader's comments (1)

Agree very much with your view and with the concerns about how universities would administer short courses and the likely variation in demand and cost of supply, I hope the government listens. With a target of 2025 launch, perhaps the way forward is to roll out in subject groups, similar to how degree apprenticeships have been approached and not try to offer everything, all at once. Focus could be on where upskilling is required.