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19 June 2020

Credit where it is due: how can England's credit framework recognise micro-credits?


Professor Sue Rigby
Vice-Chancellor, Bath Spa University, and QAA Board Member

A national effort, guided and directed locally by place-based requirements and needs, is transforming the relationship between employers, universities and colleges as we are drawn together to meet the economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. 


As higher education puts its shoulder to the wheel of recovery and renewal post-pandemic, we are developing new ways of conceiving qualifications which are agile, relevant, local, immediate, immediately useful and designed for a particular place and purpose. But to give lasting value to these interventions, they must also be transferable, durable and the building bricks for larger awards. 


We have all the tools at hand to do this, but to do it well we need to meld two completely different conceptual approaches to learning. We need to splice our traditional degree design methodologies onto the wild west of micro-credits. 


For many readers, the design code for a degree is the Credit Framework for England (separate credit and qualifications frameworks exist in the rest of the UK). Published by QAA in 2008 on the back of Bob Burgess’ critique of a degree as ‘a summative system giving the appearance of “signing off” a person’s education’, the credit framework was designed to describe and quantify the credit values typically associated with the design of programmes in higher education, setting out the amount of learning and the level required to define each qualification. 


In the years since publication, higher education has become much more diverse, encompassing higher degree apprenticeships, developing fast-track degrees, and becoming confident in the recognition of prior learning, often with professional, regulatory and statutory bodies (PSRBs).


Just before lockdown, I was tasked with revising this document as part of the ongoing work of QAA to define sector standards and norms in England. Almost the last meeting I had face-to-face was with a roomful of brilliant geeks, drawn together because they had the skills and experience to update this root design code for a more innovative higher education landscape. Little did we know just how innovative things were about to get.


In a post-pandemic world, the problem with the framework is that it conceives credit to be of value as part of a larger qualification. And credit exists in big chunks in the framework; it is a rare university that breaks up its learning into smaller bites than 10 or 15 credits. On a notional scale of one credit being an outcome of 10 hours of learning, serious time is needed to acquire a chunk of learning of this scale. Looked at from the perspective of (mainly) young people in full-time study, that is not a problem. Looked at from an adult learner perspective, or for someone with a full-time job or a family, that is a mountain to climb. Looked at from an employer perspective, it is a big loss of employee time, and a major investment in personal development. 


At the other end of the scale, enter microcredentials. These are unregulated, generally, and not part of a wider framework so they don’t build to make a larger qualification. But they can be endorsed by businesses, and indeed designed by, or for, employers to meet their immediate workforce development needs. They can be presented as CPD, or awarded as digital badges. They are sometimes credit-bearing, one, two or five-credit blocks, often not. They are typically competency based, and often not assessed in any traditional way. 


Universities and colleges have developed and delivered micro-credits - sometimes for their own students, sometimes for employers - for a number of years. However, the demand for these small, useful and immediate entities to reskill and renew our workforce is rising exponentially as our post-pandemic economic challenge becomes apparent.


In Bath, the local Council is supporting Bath Spa University and Bath College to deliver our Restart programme. This combines short, sharp upskilling for people who are losing their jobs, with reskilling for employers whose mode of working has changed overnight. Our delivery is immediate, in empty shops and ad hoc spaces, and of course, online. Support has been immense, but nothing we deliver will be a formal qualification unless we design it with a larger ambition in mind. 


So nationally, I suggest that we can do one of two things – we can segregate our training offer into a traditional aggregate qualification, primarily delivered full-time to young people, and at the same time offer quick, short-term micro-credit support to older people who need immediate help to drive the economic recovery. Or we can do something much more interesting. 


Imagine a degree built from micro-credits. Or a blended offer, where micro-credits scaffold a core of more reflective learning made up of larger credit units. Imagine a qualification that is made of stickle-bricks, not Lego - an apparently messy, individual structure, rather than a neat set of uniform components. If we can design such entities, we add long-term value to short-term expediency, and open the door to the quick design of useful learning residing in a framework that encourages life-long engagement with learning. It works for employers - they get the quick fix they need.  But critically it also works for the people who are being upskilled because each part can build to a larger whole bespoke for their life goals or career aspirations.


And it all rests on melding credit frameworks with micro-credits - on the right kind of law enforcement in the new wild west.

About the author

Professor Sue Rigby is Vice-Chancellor of Bath Spa University. She is also a QAA Board Member.


Related information

QAA recently published details of plans to review the higher education credit framework for England. You can read the news item on our website.