Micro-degrees are “gig credentials for the gig economy”, exacerbating the tenuous existence of struggling workers and turning universities into job coaching services that save companies money on their in-house training, according to two academics.
Leesa Wheelahan and Gavin Moodie have delivered a scathing assessment of an educational trend that is sweeping the world. The University of Toronto researchers say that microcredentials are fractured qualifications that abet the fracturing of formal employment through casualisation, Uber and food delivery apps.
Writing in the journal Higher Education, they say microcredentials reframe universities as “an instrument of microeconomic change” to serve market needs. “Their potential to underpin contingent, precarious work is greatest for those who are the most disadvantaged,” the pair write.
“Those without the access to elite occupations provided by the elite universities must take on more risk to ‘second-guess’ the requirements of the labour market so that they have the ‘right’ skills needed at the right time for the right job.”
The paper says that microcredentials are being embraced in parts of North America, Africa and Australasia, where New Zealand has incorporated them into its qualifications framework. Australia, which plans to do likewise, entrenched them as a key plank of last year’s Covid rescue package for universities.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the European Commission and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation are all developing recognition frameworks for microcredentials.
But the paper says that many of the bite-sized courses’ supposed spinoffs – social inclusion, student-centred learning and “self-realisation” for learners – are not supported by evidence. The limited data on their employment outcomes suggest that the benefits “are certainly lower than for substantial credentials”, often failing to lift graduates out of poverty.
Dr Moodie likened the enthusiasm for microcredentials to the fervour for massive open online courses in 2012 and for online education during the 1990s dot-com bubble.
All three “crazes” had been touted on similar grounds: they made learning more accessible, affordable and democratic and institutions more flexible, relevant and innovative. “But all three hypes have been deeply embedded in economic interests which degrade the educational value of higher education,” he said.
People do not master automotive engineering by obtaining driver’s licences, Dr Moodie said. “Microcredentials…are misguided [if] they seek to displace rather than complement substantial qualifications. And they are distracting and potentially damaging if [their] promotion [undermines the] structures and processes needed to support substantive qualifications.”
Dr Wheelahan said microcredentials benefited bosses at the expense of workers. They allowed employers to disinvest in professional development, leaving individuals “second-guessing the labour market”.
“We’ve had years of experience of microcredentials in vocational education, called ‘skill sets’ in Australia. The outcomes are much worse than for whole vocational education qualifications. They can’t replace access to meaningful qualifications, and they can’t be a substitute for them.”