The Potential for Microcredentials to Facilitate Cross-Border Skills Certification for Employability: Views from Asia-Pacific
Microcredential is the new kid on the block in higher education. Previously championed by educational technology companies, it has made successful inroads into universities and is being applied to certify different forms of nontraditional learning and learner competencies. Due to their versatility, microcredentials can offer numerous advantages over traditional qualifications. In relation to skills certification, microcredentials’ useful features include higher visibility and shareability through digital badging, detailed information about the skill set acquired and easy access by employers, all of which can help to externalize learner competencies to users.
Despite growing interest in many countries to exploit the benefits of microcredentials, there’s been little mention of their recognition beyond national borders. The situation is improving in the European context with the June 2022 Council recommendation to support the use of microcredentials for lifelong learning and employability within the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).
There are similarly encouraging developments in the Asia-Pacific region pointing to the general direction in which microcredentials are heading. In Australia, a National Microcredentials Framework has been developed, and it forms part of the enhancement for the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF). In Singapore, a competency-based stackable microcredential pathway into degree for in-service personnel has been created from partnerships formed between polytechnics and industry. Moreover, in Thailand, a higher education system approach to assessing the impact of micro-credentials has been taken, and dialogues were opened up with regional Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and extra-regional (European Union) partners. Within ASEAN, Malaysia initiates discussions on microcredentials at the ASEAN Quality Assurance Network (AQAN). Although every country in the region are ready to buy into microcredentials’ skills enhancement function, views diverge as to whether it should remain as informal and unaccredited such as espoused by some Pacific island countries or to pursue parallel development in the case of New Zealand.
Against this backdrop of policy overdrive to try to understand microcredential usage, UNESCO has issued its version of a definition statement for microcredentials in 2022, hoping to bring clarity to terminologies and usages and to help set the scene for cross-border exchanges involving microcredentials. Generally speaking, the motivation behind quality agencies and national funding authorities exploring microcredentials is connected to the recognition of experience for credits from the formal qualification system and through stacking multiple microcredentials into larger-size qualifications bearing credits.
From an inter-institutional or multi-party collaboration point of view, the use of microcredentials far exceeds the for-credit objective. It greatly facilitates varying forms of cross-border exchanges that belong to the category of informal learning. In international education, the experiential learning arranged for students is normally non-credit-bearing but can contribute actively to developing their soft skills and readying them for a career. These would include short-span study trips abroad, overseas service learning and job shadowing, cross-country competition team or even a virtual class with an international element, which was en vogue during the COVID crisis. However, in the absence of a proper way to certify such learning, it would be difficult for learners to articulate the outcomes of these international education activities. For students who are keen to tap into overseas opportunities after graduation and are prepared to become part of the globally mobile workforce, a digital badge certifying their ability to work across cultures represents a tangible and valuable mark of endorsement.
While many universities continue to ponder their stand on microcredentials adoption, the goal for subscribing to it is unequivocally linked to serving workforce and economic development needs. Globally, the trend is for an increasing number of employers to place more weight on skills than academic qualifications when hiring. Against this backdrop, universities will find it expedient to issue microcredentials as the alternative means for showing student attainment of attributes and competencies to enter the job market—a function that an academic transcript does poorly by comparison. Easier said than done, the multitude of microcredential issuers with a low entrance threshold, a myriad of hosting platforms with variable levels of technical complexity and interfacing capability, and the presence of quality assurance mechanisms or otherwise all work to slow progress in making microcredentials an instrument to facilitate cross-border skills certification.
Rather than being overwhelmed by these concerns, tertiary institutions must create their own value-added models without waiting for national regulators to step in. After all, the utility of national guidelines on microcredentials usage would have little bearing on an international job market that seeks out the best candidates who have desired attributes and skills to offer. In other words, international educators to trail blaze their own paths for micro-credentials and let the result speak for itself.
There are some places in international education where micro-credentials are gaining traction, as some institutions’ experiences suggest they could work to bring real benefits.
Microcredentials are primarily useful in preparing students for inbound and outbound exchanges. Short courses in foreign language and cultural immersion are particularly suited to being packaged as microcredentials whether they lead to credit or not. Another usage is in the orientation of overseas students prior to their arrival at the host country. In this respect, international education associations serving tertiary institutions and university mobility networks can provide the leadership and platform to advance universities’ common interest and employ microcredentials for international student exchanges and to reskill and upskill foreign students to fill local workforce deficits and skills gaps.
A yet untapped route to advance the utility of microcredentials for job mobility overseas is for universities to partner with transnational human resource consultancy companies in skills certification through digital co-badging. Such a partnership will result in an integration between skills training and employment matching based on global or regional talent trend surveys. The major educational technology companies have been active in surveying emerging job roles based on human and digital skills competencies. To push this further into the mainstream of transnational talent recruitment, microcredentials must be integrated into the human resource sourcing toolbox. Regional economic blocs such as the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), under its Human Resources Development Working Group, have actively supported projects to help member economies tap into microcredentials to increase digital skills and design microcredential-based courses.
Despite their recent history when compared to traditional degree qualifications, perception is beginning to turn in favor of micro-credentials as a value-added for job applicants to show they can fill immediate skills gaps in the workplace. More study, however, needs to be done to validate the actual abilities microcredential holders possess and to establish credibility recruitment screening by human resource departments.
There is no doubt that microcredentials will continue to evolve new applications, while higher education institutions already experimenting with them have the advantage of being pioneers. Certifying graduate career readiness and employability beyond the locale will be able to bring competitive advantage to graduates and reap reputational gain for higher education institutions as a global employment-oriented university.
Author Perspective: Administrator