The government has released its National Microcredentials Framework (NMF) to unify the emerging education sector.

Recognising the lack of consensus about just what a microcredential is and how it should be recognised by employers, an expert working group developed the framework after examining over 35 different organisations’ definitions of the word – and consulted with over 120 individuals from 70 academic, business and training organisations in the process.

“Technological change, coupled with rapid transformation brought about by COVID-19, have elevated the potential for microcredentials to rapidly upskill and reskill the workforce,” the report’s authors note while adding that “the microcredentials ecosystem is disparate, lacking even a consistent definition across higher education, vocational education, and industry.”

“A framework can help reduce complications for learners seeking to make a decision on what to learn, for recognising bodies or providers seeking to recognise a microcredential for credit, and for employers or professional bodies seeking to understand the learning outcomes and capabilities of employees.”

The standard sets a national definition of microcredentials, agrees on unifying principles for the courses, establishes critical information requirements, and outlines a minimum standard that microcredentials must meet to be featured on the government’s new Microcredentials Marketplace.

That marketplace – which was announced by the government in June 2020 and awarded to the Universities Admissions Centre (UAC) last July – will provide a consistent view of available microcredentials that will enable potential students to compare short courses and ‘stack’ them to build complete qualifications whose clarity will make them more helpful for potential employers.

To be included in the Microcredentials Marketplace, microcredential institutions must provide clear learning outcomes and transparent assessments; use Australian Core Skills Framework descriptors; and stipulate the volume of learning, which must be more than one hour and less than a formal Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) qualification.

Microcredentials may use “best-fit or estimate” techniques to recognise non-credit-bearing microcredentials; reflect industry recognition, where they are recognised by professional bodies as counting towards an industry or vendor certification; and clearly demonstrate credit recognition against AQF criteria, where applicable.

The NMF also requires authorities to provide a “statement of assurance of quality” that describes the provider, its quality assurance processes, and the processes by which the microcredentials are reviewed and updated.

“It is hoped that the development and implementation of this framework in conjunction with the Marketplace will encourage greater cohesion in the design, development and delivery of microcredentials across both the Australian education system and broader industry,” the report notes.

Disrupting the unis

Australia’s “massively fragmented and tough” credentialing innovation sector has long kept it lagging behind regional innovators like Singapore, Malaysia and the EU, warned Dr Katy McDevitt, a former Deakin University microcredential designer who is now chief learning officer at multinational microcredentials provider HEX – which has affiliations with 37 universities and has worked with over 5,000 students.

The NMF “is a major practical contribution towards making it simpler for education providers to get traction in designing meaningful credentials,” McDevitt said, warning that “tech-powered transformations are happening at a phenomenal pace.”

“The longer we spend defining the basics of a form of education technology that has now existed for the best part of a decade, the more out of step we become with the real and fast emerging future needs of the economy.”

Momentum for microcredentials has been building in recent years as increasing demand for current IT and other skills challenges universities that require years of commitment to complete broad degrees whose specific deliverables are often hard for employers to evaluate.

In 2019, a review of the AQF warned that existing “highly generic” credentials were unsuitable for the modern workforce and relied on outcome statements that were “not meaningful” in a world characterised by “a constant state of disruption and innovation.”

Aiming to help workers better understand the skills they need to get IT jobs, organisations such as the Australian Computer Society (ACS) and OpenLearning have worked to establish standards for microcredentials – but the NMF aims to simplify the landscape by mapping these and other courses against common definitions.

Standardising the currently disjointed market for microcredentials – and ensuring that certifications are universally recognised – could threaten the tertiary sector’s long-held control over formal knowledge acquisition, former educational director and consultant Paul Corcoran argued in a recent evaluation of the sector’s biggest challenges.

“Current discussions around microcredentials sometimes have the feel of an answer in search of a question,” he said, noting that “the virtues of microcredentials are being extolled but take-up is fragmented and stakeholders appear to have mixed views on the utility and quality of those credentials.”

Microcredentials allow job seekers to demonstrate more specific skills than is possible using ‘macrocredentials’ such as university degrees, Corcoran notes in advocating for a standardised national framework – as well as allowing individuals to have their skills “recognised in a more timely manner than is possible with macrocredentials”.