Higher education: Microcredentials are a leap or a lapse?

Encouraging students to acquire knowledge and skills in bits and bytes to accumulate microcredentials is being heralded by the UGC as the dawn of a new era in higher education. The initiative would usher in a new era, but the main question is to whose advantage? It is being served to higher education students as […]

Encouraging students to acquire knowledge and skills in bits and bytes to accumulate microcredentials is being heralded by the UGC as the dawn of a new era in higher education. The initiative would usher in a new era, but the main question is to whose advantage?

It is being served to higher education students as a disruptive way of bridging the gap between knowledge and skills, theory and practice, thus enhancing their employability, presumably because the job market is increasingly ‘prioritising skills over degrees’.

While higher education institutions have yet to respond, the unorganised and unregulated private service providers outside the mainstream educational institutions are enthusiastic about the initiative. Ubiquitously, they envisage immense business opportunities for themselves. Technology giants and EdTechs, the dominant providers of microcredentials, are too reticent to react.

Microcredentials are generally short-duration activities targeted at completing small learning capsules. Engagement in such actions could be organised in in-person or distant learning modes. Presently, they are primarily delivered remotely online. They are supposed to enable people, students in higher education, professionals, and practitioners to acquire specific skills, competencies and practical expertise.

They are offered mainly through private service providers outside formal educational institutions at market-determined prices. The learners are awarded digital badges as proof of their prowess in specific skills. It is assumed that potential employers would prefer these digital batches over degrees.

Instructions are usually given by professionals and practitioners who are not necessarily required to meet such eligibility qualifications as expected from higher education institutions’ faculty members. Their pay, payments and service conditions are also outside the regulatory purview. Technically not being educational institutions, the microcredentials providers could be established, run and managed as for-profit entities.

The UGC guidelines for transforming higher education institutions into multidisciplinary institutions, as issued in 2022, expect their departments of education to ‘undertake continuing professional development’ through ‘massive open online courses (MOOCs), open educational resources (OERs), microcredentials, machine learning, blended learning, social technologies… etc.’.

This suggests that higher educational institutions could impart microcredentials. This is possible because the National Programme on Technology-enabled Learning (NPTEL) has already made some headway in offering microcredentials. But are the universities and colleges of higher education equipped and ready to undertake this venture?

Microcredentials are usually associated with application-oriented knowledge and skills. They primarily offer practical experience and hands-on expertise in doing specific jobs. Universities are not specifically suited for these kinds of activities, and if they do, they seriously compromise their core teaching and research activities.

The Skill-Index report 2023 states that no more than 45% of the higher education graduates are employable. Contrary to the general perception, the employability rates in different tiers of colleges do not differ significantly. The overall employability rate in Tier 1 colleges is reported to be 46%, whereas it is only marginally low at 44% and 43% in the Tier 2 and Tier 3 colleges. Obviously, it is in the nature of higher education institutions to primarily focus on the creation and dissemination of knowledge rather than inculcating hands-on skills.

To offer micro-credentials at a sustainable scale, higher education institutions must invest heavily in IT infrastructure, courseware development and continuous upgradation of the content in active collaboration with industry.

The investment could be recouped in due course of time, but only if they have a reputation for attracting a sustainable number of clientele who are willing to acquire micro-credentials offered by them at market prices. They would also be required to market their offerings aggressively, a trait that is conspicuous by the absence, particularly in publicly funded higher education educational institutions.

Wider acceptability and recognition of micro-credentials require robust benchmarking and regulations to assure potential employers and institutions. The National Credit Framework (NCrF) and the National Higher Education Qualification Framework (NHEQF) do provide the space to integrate micro-credentials with existing academic programs. However, seamless integration of micro-credentials into the educational ecosystem in a meaningful way calls for rather careful thinking and articulation.

Critically, it must be recognised that higher educational institutions, particularly universities, are designed to create and disseminate knowledge. These are their core functions. Nothing, not even the skill-development focus, must distract them from their core function.

Being relatively new to the educational landscape, employers may respond differently to the micro-credentials. While some employers may give it its due regard, some may still be inclined towards a traditional degree, and this perception can impact students’ willingness to partake in micro-credentials and often lead to confusion.

A report from the University Professional and Continuing Education (UPCEA) says 46 percent of employers are unsure about the quality of micro-credentials, and 42 percent are unsure of the skills and competencies obtained during the certification.

Hence, bridging the gap in perception and ensuring widespread recognition of the value of micro-credentials is detrimental to their successful integration into the existing higher education framework.

While micro-credentials offer a promising opportunity, their full potential can only be realised if we address the challenges mentioned above. Bridging the gap between theory and practice to changing employers’ perceptions requires strategic planning and collaboration.

Successfully integrating micro-credentials depends not only on technological advancements and academic rigour but also on a commitment to equity, accessibility, and lifelong learning. As we embark on this new phase in higher education, it is crucial to create an inclusive culture where all institutions, from top universities to those in Tier III cities, actively participate and benefit from the dawn of micro-credentials.

Furqan Qamar, a Professor in the Faculty of Management Studies of Jamia Millia Islamia, has been an Advisor (Education) in the Planning Commission. Sameer Ahmad Khan is pursuing PhD in the Faculty of Management Studies of Jamia Millia Islamia. Views expressed are personal.