Micro-credentials: a European initiative for lifelong learning – new and yet familiar
Ute Hippach-Schneider, Isabelle Le Mouillour
In December 2021, the European Commission published a proposal for a Council Recommendation on a European approach to micro-credentials for lifelong learning and employability. Although in use in higher education and in English-speaking countries, the term “micro-credentials” has remained unknown in vocational education and training in Germany up until now. Much is still open and unclear, and no uniform understanding or notion exists with regard to the role which they could or should play in the member states. One of the outcomes of the Europe-wide consultation on this Recommendation is that such an instrument is not without controversy in vocational education and training. The present article looks at the core elements of the European proposal and identifies areas of potential and problem areas associated with the use of micro-credentials for VET. This is particularly highlighted via a reflection on possible developments of micro-credentials in the German VET context.
Background to the initiative
The European Commission set the course towards its Recommendation on micro-credentials in 2020, when its European Skills Agenda for sustainable competitiveness, social fairness and resilience was instigated (cf. European Commission 2020). In light of the comprehensive changes to worlds of life and work being brought about by digitalisation and having due regard to sustainable growth, the European Commission believes that the need for ongoing continuing training and lifelong learning in Europe will be even greater in the future than it is now. This objective was reinforced at a Social Summit held in Porto in May 2021, where the EU’s heads of state and government agreed that 60 percent of all adults should be taking part in continuing training by 2030.1
In particular, the Commission diagnoses a requirement for more flexible forms of general and vocational education which are aligned to learners and which are less extensive than the formal qualifications currently in existence (cf. European Commission 2021). These smaller scale units are designated as “micro-credentials”.
The proposed definition (cf. Information box) and the Recommendation for specific measures were drawn up by a higher education expert group (cf. European Commission 2020). Various online teaching formats have emerged in the higher education sector since the 2000s. These include so-called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), interactive online courses which operate under the principle of free accessibility all over the world. With their roots in Canadian and US universities, MOOCs have spread globally in the wake of digitalisation. They may lead to certification, or else merely offer a certificate of participation. Fees have also been introduced in some cases. Global commercial providers with university provision as part of their portfolios have now come into being. A new worldwide education and training market has been created.
Global availability, the flexibility of programmes with regard to duration and content design, and the possibility in some instances of accumulating certificates are all attractive aspects driving considerations as to whether such formats should also be developed in VET.
“’Micro-credential’ means the record of the learning outcomes that a learner has acquired following a small volume of learning. These learning outcomes will have been assessed against transparent and clearly defined criteria. Learning experiences leading to micro-credentials are designed to provide the learner with specific knowledge, skills and competences that respond to societal, personal, cultural or labour market needs. Micro-credentials are owned by the learner, can be shared and are portable. They may be stand-alone or combined into larger credentials. They are underpinned by quality assurance following agreed standards in the relevant sector or area of activity.” (Council of the European Commission 2022, p. 5)
European consultation on micro-credentials
A Europe-wide consultation2 on the draft Recommendation of the European Commission took place between April and June 2021. 508 submissions were made. 34 percent of these came from European citizens and 18 percent from universities and research institutions. Germany accounted for 4.7 percent of the responses. Amongst the members states, Italy (15.4%), Belgium (9.7%), Hungary (8.9%) and Spain (8.5%) were the most prominent participants. The contributions to the consultation certainly confirm the need for a European approach towards micro-credentials, towards the flexibilisation of continuing training provision, towards recognition of learning programmes that are becoming increasingly adaptable, and towards encouraging integration into education systems and labour markets. Nevertheless, they also exhibit a certain scepticism in the face of a European Recommendation without any clear definition of its underlying object. The feedback allows us to discern a multitude of interests with regard to the areas of potential offered by micro-credentials, quality assurance and their role in qualifications (cf. Information box; for more details European Commission 2022).
Views expressed in the European consultation
“Overall, respondents across all stakeholder categories agreed that the most important characteristics of a high-quality micro-credential was the recognition / acceptance by employers followed by quality assurance based on transparent quality standards; recognition by education and training organisations and recognition by national authorities. The participants considered availability in native language and their usefulness for cross-border mobility (portability) to be the least important aspects.” (European Commission 2022, p. 15)
“Moreover, micro-credentials should also be made compatible with ESCO, new Europass, and QS information. Respondents also noted that micro-credentials can increase workers possibilities to access flexible lifelong learning and can complement workers’ upskilling and reskilling. It was highlighted that micro-credentials mainly have an added value when they work in addition to full qualifications but not as replacement of them.” (ibid., p. 19)
“Overall, all elements of the working definition were considered valid by respondents, either as essential or recommended. Respondents considered that the most essential elements of the definition were the focus on learning outcomes and the assessment of learning outcomes against transparent standards. The potentially most divisive elements of the definition of a micro-credential were to include a focus on the short learning experience and the reference to the micro-credential’s inclusion in a qualifications framework.” (ibid., p. 21)
“The respondents considered that the EU’s primary role is to ensure a coherent approach towards recognition of micro-credentials at the level of the EU.” (ibid., p. 24)
Comparable qualifications formats in the German vocational education and training system
On the basis of the somewhat vague criteria for micro-credentials and their goals which are set out in the definition contained in the EU draft Recommendation, it is definitely possible to identify existing qualification formats in Germany which can be described as micro-credentials.
Acquisition of partial qualifications, for example, considerably increases flexibility along the route to a vocational qualification. Adults aged over 25 have had the opportunity to achieve such qualifications in a module-by-module way since 2013. Participants receive a certificate after each module. When all modules have been passed, they are able to obtain a qualification for the entire training occupation in question via an external examination (§ 45 Paragraph 2 Vocational Training Act, BBiG). The chance to acquire partial qualifications already exists for more than 30 occupations within the scope of the AGI TQ employer initiative.3 Since 2019, the BMBF has been funding the development of fundamental principles for the establishment of nationally standardised standards via its project ETAPP, in which BIBB is also involved. The aim by 2022 is that this uniform national standard will provide access to partial qualifications for all semi-skilled and unskilled persons aged over 25 and thus allow them to gain a vocational qualification. The development of the standards is being piloted on the basis of ten occupational profiles.4
The additional qualifications introduced as a result of the BBiG reform of 2005 are also helping to create flexibilisation in the VET system by expanding and supplementing the professional portfolio of training occupations (cf. Gutschow/Lorig 2022). Companies providing training are thus able to impart further competencies alongside those stipulated in the training regulations. This permits them to offer high-ability young people an opportunity to deepen or broaden their technical skills. Additional qualifications can enhance the flexibility of qualified skilled workers on the labour market and assist them in adjusting their competence profile to technological developments or to other changes in competency requirements in a timely manner whilst they are still undergoing training.
After completion of training, advanced vocational training governed by standardised national regulations and numerous so-called chamber regulations provide a flexible opportunity to acquire further professional competencies which focus on regional requirements. Such learning is also certified, legally regulated, established and recognised accordingly on the labour market. Although duration of learning varies, it can in overall terms be designated as “short”. The agreement between the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB) and the German Employers’ Organisation for Vocational and Further Training (KWB) (2008) discusses a learning process of at least 200 hours in order to prepare for the examination. However, like the additional qualifications, these cannot be accumulated in a way which leads to a formal qualification.
The compensation measures which take place as part of the process of recognising foreign qualifications also show some of the characteristics of micro-credentials. Examples of compensation measures are refresher training, an aptitude test or a knowledge test. Refresher training, for instance, can close competency gaps in comparison to the German reference occupation. Following completion of such training, it is therefore possible to ascertain equivalence of the foreign professional or vocational qualification with a German reference occupation. In refresher training, the learning process takes place during work and is supported and supervised by a skilled worker qualified in the occupation in question. In an aptitude test, only areas in which substantial differences have been established are tested. Refresher training may also be undertaken in order to obtain recognition in non-regulated occupations. It may be conducted at a company, at a vocational school or external training via a training provider or in inter-company training centres.
The validation procedure developed by the chambers in the ValiKom Transfer project represents a further example of a route outside the usual education and training pathway via which a certificate can be acquired confirming competencies gained by informal and non-formal means and which can be used by participants on the labour market. This provides an opportunity, via external evaluation, to obtain validation from the chambers of competencies not achieved within the formal education and training system. Missing competencies can be acquired in a targeted way, and a validation certificate will then ultimately be issued in order to attest full equivalence with the reference occupation. Participation in such a procedure is open to those aged over 25 with the requisite occupational experience.5
Areas of potential and problems of micro-credentials from a German point of view
The published responses from German educational decision makers and stakeholders predominantly address the risks for education and vocational education and training that are associated with the proposed Recommendation (cf. Figure). In 2020, the Bundesrat (Federal Council, the German Upper House) levelled criticism at the European proposals, stressing that “all organs of the EU are merely able to foster, support and supplement cooperation between member states within the framework of the EU system of powers and whilst according due consideration to the principle of subsidiarity and to the ban on harmonisation (...). Structural decisions and the implementation of the objectives must occur at the level of the member states and in accordance with their legal regulations” (Bundesrat 2020, p. 3). The Bundesrat also adopted a critical attitude towards proposals for greater modularisation of education and training provision and towards the intended introduction of so-called micro-credentials (ibid. p. 8). “The German government is the most sceptical about the proposed initiative on micro-credentials. It notes that micro-credentials may generate a disproportionate administrative or financial burden for the Member States, as it may be a duplicate of other existing structures. Moreover, from Germany’s point of view, there is a general risk that the value of qualifications will be diluted across all educational sectors. The German government points out that the individual characteristics of higher education and vocational training in terms of content and organisation need to be respected and considered during the design of the micro-credential strategies.” (European Commission 2022, p. 35).
The German government (alongside the French government) also rejects the notion of aligning micro-credentials to the existing qualifications frameworks. It argues that such a move would contradict the status of micro-credentials as supplementary certificates. “The German government fears that the potential alignment of micro-credentials with national qualifications frameworks (and hence also the EQF) might undermine the credibility of and trust in the respective qualification frameworks” (ibid., p. 36). “For this reason, Germany doubts whether development of a European framework including standards, requirements and certification criteria – which will have to meet the needs of the different sectors, regions, companies and continuing education participants in a flexible, targeted and anticipatory way – can provide genuine added value” (ibid., p. 38). The German government and the German employers’ association (BDA) “calls for a clear differentiation of higher education, continued education and VET and points towards the different systems of Member States. Micro-credentials, they argue, should not disrupt those existing systems. (…) [C]ourses leading to micro-credentials can be considered as continuous professional development but not replacement of the initial education, especially for teachers” (ibid., p. 46). Although German stakeholders essentially approve of the goals of encouraging permeability and integration, they also call for a clear differentiation between educational sectors.
What happens next?
Many of the characteristics of the proposal concerning micro-credentials are reminiscent of the Recommendation on the Establishment of a European Credit System for Vocational Education and Training (ECVET) from 2009, which has now been rescinded. This particularly applies in respect of the aim of fostering lifelong learning across borders, with regard to the credit transfer, recognition and accumulation of learning outcomes and in relation to connection with qualifications frameworks and the Europass. This may explain why some of the responses question what the European or national added value delivered by micro-credentials would be. The intention of adopting a cross-cutting approach also leaves a number of issues unresolved. Reactions within the European consultations are thus evocative of debates surrounding modularisation, flexibilisation and permeability in VET and in the education system, or of discussions centring on the opening up of the initial and continuing training market.
The European Union’s “Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council” adopted the Commission’s proposal on 16 June. Such a step served to confirm its very broad and rather ill-defined nature. This means that sufficient leeway is initially accorded with regard to addressing the use of micro-credentials in VET. The open way in which the definition is formulated certainly provides a basis via which existing flexibilisation instruments may be deemed to be micro-credentials within this framework. At the same time, the Recommendation may stimulate ideas as to how further flexibilisation and formal recognition of education and training activities could increase the attractiveness of learning, including within a cross-cutting context. The member states have now been called upon to notify the Commission of measures to support the objectives of the Recommendation by December 2023.
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(All links: status 20/07/2022)
Academic researcher at BIBB
Isabelle Le Mouillour
Head of Division at BIBB
Translation from the German original (published in BWP 3/2022): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin