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Credentialing: How can micro-credentials be used to encourage lifelong learning?

James Davis

The UA 2019 conference yielded several insights from higher education providers into what university degrees could look like in future.

The Universities Australia Higher Education Conference contained an abundance of insights, many of which were rolled into various concurrent panel sessions. My time machine is in the garage so I was unable to attend all of them, but those I did had many lessons of note.

The first I attended was on transformative teaching, from 2:00pm - 3:30pm Wednesday. The primary question of interest was, “how can education providers prepare for disruptive change?” Panelists included:

  • Professor Jill Downie, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Curtin University
  • Dr Sandra Walls, Acting Executive Director of Academic Affairs at Box Hill Institute
  • Professor John Pollaers, Chancellor at Swinburne University of Technology
  • Brad Halicek, third-year Bachelor of Technology student

The event was chaired by Professor Attila Brungs, Vice-Chancellor and President at UTS.

Each panelist was given three minutes to address the crowd, but trended toward multiples of three instead. Professor Downie led the charge by asserting people who continue learning will be the ones “helping industry stay ahead of the market.” She’s a strong believer in co-creating educational content, with on-the-job learning being a contributor to course credit. Developing flexible blended online courses, Downie insisted, is crucial in adapting to the job market’s changing needs.

She then professed, as professors are wont to do, the benefits of nano-credentialing. These are five-credit qualifications that exist independently, or can be combined into micro-credentials, which in turn become standard credentials. The idea is to incentivise lifelong learning; students needn’t commit to lengthy programs to gain proof of knowledge. Nano-credentials provide something to show at every step along the way, ideally making the formal education process more fluid, rather than the cast-iron dichotomy we have now (either you have a degree, or you don’t). “Stacks” of such credentials, she says, could become available across disciplines. Personalised master’s degrees provide students with avenues for building specialist programs for careers they see fit. The biggest threat she sees to such programs is the current lack of funding models to support them.

Dr Sandra Walls was next, providing insight from the NUHEP sector (non-university higher education providers). She was adamant that NUHEP higher degrees are an emergent field, with VET qualifications being accessible points of entry. At Box Hill alone, 14% of undergrads to bachelor-level courses were admitted solely on prior VET qualification. She expects NUHEPS to identify and capitalise on the growing student environment.

Professor John Pollaers then took the podium to express dissatisfaction at how little today’s educational needs are being addressed. “The jobs that these qualifications support no longer exist,” he regretted.

Brad Halicek was the wild card among them, but he was far from the average student. He discussed his past in relation to the necessity of versatile education. Honestly, it’s quite something. His early twenties were spent working in a club, which he left due to lack of progression. This led him to another club where it looked like management could be in his future. Unfortunately, there was a crucial flaw to this plan: he didn’t like clubs. So, he travelled the world for two years before becoming a florist. He found this to be boring, so he learned how to fly instead. Did some flight instructing; got bored again. Finally, he joined the RAF, which he stuck with for ten years until sustaining injuries and being medically discharged. The experience taught him the value of continual learning. As a RAF pilot, he was taking all manner of short courses to both refine and broaden his skillset. He believes degrees with the same capacity should be made available, which is what inspired his bachelor of technology. It gives greater freedom to pursue what he personally and professionally desires.

The individual addresses then closed, giving way to questions from the audience and chair, Professor Brungs. The first question was in regard to industry collaboration, with Professor Pollaers insisting educational bodies are not beholden to industry. “If work placements are important,” he dared, “what are you doing for them?” He used the aged care industry as an example of sectors failing to grow their educational standards. Professor Downie added to this by mentioning it’s an ongoing challenge to “not do more of the same faster.” If industry too understands their need for change, she added, they can.

Many of the responses shared during this panel stand independent of their questions. One of Mr Halicek’s poignant observations exemplifies this. In his varied experiences, he found employers are scared of training staff because they fear them leaving. This is a pointless fear, he said, because employees will leave if they aren’t enjoying it anyway. A surefire way to make them leave is letting them stagnate.

In a discussion on the fluidity of microcredentials, Dr Walls suggested modern VET diplomas could parachute students into other degrees, with units from elsewhere being freely applicable to future programs. All panelists added to this, culminating in a shared sentiment: students don’t want to commit $50,000 to a piece of paper that may not land them a job. Tech companies in India offering master’s graduates a guaranteed a job interview were used as an example measure that can be taken to assist job relevance of higher degrees. To this end, began Professor Downie, the merits of smaller credentials must be shared with industry to facilitate communication.

Mr Halicek raised a curious observation in response to a question on the future of automation. He noticed peers selecting many humanities-based units within their degree in order to safeguard against the rise of AI. The theory being automating skills in this domain is far more difficult given neither employers nor students know what the future job market holds.

Professor Pollaers than commented on the lack of communication channels between industry and university. There aren’t any engagement structures in place for talking to the people who can make necessary funding structures for alternate course delivery happen. Until then, he says, the micro-credentials debate is unsupported. Full funding dialogue across sectors is required. Dr Wall then advised against shuffling funding between university and VET courses, asserting a new source of funding would be necessary. Professor Pollaers finished the thought by stating universities are capable of starting the funding discussion; it doesn’t have to be on the government.

To end the panel, Mr Halicek answered a question regarding the job applicability of assignments within many courses. He used essays as an example of “a waste of time” unless you’re going into the academic field of that topic. In contrast, learning how to write reports is useful. All degrees, in his opinion, should be “macro”, meaning they should explore a wide breadth of career-oriented skill-sets and knowledge across disciplines.

This panel contained some thought-provoking questions, although much is omitted from this account due to overindulgence in self-promotion. How do we open a tripartite dialogue between students, industry and universities for the purpose of creating useful ‘micro-degrees’, for instance? What funding structure will work to facilitate this sort of system, if any? Ultimately, there’s much to be said of uncertainty regarding what will be required in future jobs. Despite the difficulties these questions may present, it may become necessary to answer them so future students can build varied degrees for an equally varied world.