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24 November 2021

Micro-credentials as an Enabler of Sustainability


Dr Demelza Curnow
Lead Quality Manager, QAA

Dr Kate Mori
Quality and Standards Specialist, QAA

In our current work drafting an Interim Characteristics Statement for Micro-credentials, one of the things we have been considering is the role that micro-credentials can play in enabling sustainable development.


From 31 October to 12 November this year, the UK hosted the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow. There is a sense of real urgency to address rising temperatures and, as the world continues to consider action that will mitigate damage so far and how practices in the future need to adapt, education and research will need to be at the heart of solutions.


As short, focused courses, micro-credentials can provide rapid and targeted responses to industry need. This might be in response to a broader identified need for individual learners or at an organisational-level through collaboration between a degree-awarding body and an employer seeking to develop a credit-bearing CPD programme. Particularly in the case of the latter, micro-credentials have the potential to enhance sustainable practice and processes through structured development of the workforce. As companies and organisations are founded, developed and continue to grow and evolve, they need to consider the impact that their activities are having, not simply on the environment but on the interplay of economic, social and environmental factors.


Investing in the workforce is a key component in meeting the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These were agreed in 2015 by global leaders within the UN as part of Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Underpinned by 169 targets and 232 unique indicators, the SDGs are comprehensive and, at the top level, include: Quality Education, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, Reduced Inequalities, Sustainable Cities and Communities, Responsible Consumption and Production, and Climate Action.


Earlier this year, QAA and AdvanceHE jointly published the second edition of Education for Sustainable Development Guidance. This notes the breadth of the SDGs and the depth of the targets within each goal means that they can resonate with all academic disciplines and subject areas. And, for micro-credentials, the SDGs offer a means of contextualising and framing the content within micro-credentials and enabling commercial and educational organisations to develop their workforce and practice for a sustainable future.


Of course, one of the characteristics of micro-credentials is that they are relatively small packages of learning and therefore credit. The definition we are working to at QAA is that there are no upper and lower limits on the amount of credit that a micro-credential carries, provided it would not normally constitute an award in its own right on the Qualifications Framework. So, for example, a 60-credit micro-credential at FHEQ level 6/FQHEIS level 10 would be absolutely fine; at FHEQ level 7/FQHEIS level 11, however, it would constitute a Postgraduate Certificate, so would no longer be a micro-credential but an award in its own right.


If we look at examples that already exist, the tendency is to keep micro-credentials smaller than that: the European Common Micro-Credentials Framework is based on 10-15 credits; the New Zealand Qualifications Authority requires micro-credentials to be between 5-40 credits; and some others simply use terms such as ‘relatively small learning project’ (International Council for Distance Education) or ‘shorter [than] traditional education credentials’ (eCampus Ontario, Canada).


Closer to home, the Scottish Funding Council and Higher Education Funding Council for Wales have not stipulated credit weighting, but their guidance is in line with QAA’s working definition and looks to courses that are less than a year long, or smaller than an existing qualification. The Office for Students has been very specific in its recent challenge competition, with a requirement of 30-credit units of learning to qualify.


The risk is that we try to pack too much into too small a unit, simply diluting it in the process by trying to be all things to all people or to address an unreasonable quantity of skills and knowledge in a limited space. But short, focused micro-credentials could help place a spotlight on sustainability and how sustainable practices, skills and knowledge could be encouraged around a specific focus, and this will be helped further if an organisation or industry takes a planned approach to micro-credentials.


Another of the challenges that we are wrestling with is the one of ‘stackability’. There are no easy answers to that, but the SDGs provide one of the tools which have the potential to inform the development of pathways and routes so that learners can build complementary skills, practices, competencies and knowledge. A sense of coherence could be developed this way without compromising a learner-led ethos of micro-credentials.


There is more to be done and more conversations to be had, but as we consider how micro-credentials might meet the needs of industry and individuals in the rapidly-changing world that is the 21st century, they could be a valuable means of addressing sustainability through lifelong learning.