Micro-credentials: what are the challenges for students?

This post summarises a ‘think piece’ I wrote in 2021 for the QAA Scotland Enhancement Theme of Resilient Learning Communities on Understanding Micro-Credentials and Small Qualifications. The full paper examines micro-credentials from the perspective of students and is available here. You can read my earlier posts on the wider challenges of micro-credentials here and on the slipperiness of defining micro-credentials here.

Micro-credentials are a significant development in the emergence of a more flexible and labour-market aligned higher education globally (Pelletier et al., 2021). The provision of micro-credentials is being promoted in UK higher education policy through, for example, England’s Skills White Paper and Scotland’s ‘upskilling’ funding (Kernohan, 2021). As my paper argues, micro-credentials are a slippery concept. Even within European Higher Education Area, definitions diverge between, for example, the European Commission (2020) and the European MOOC Consortium (EMC). These are based on credit volume and levels. While in the USA, micro-credentials refer to something that is more than a single course and less than a full degree – hence the use of terms like “nano-degree” or “Micro-masters” (Kato, Galan-Muros and Weko, 2020). To add to the complexities of this landscape are the plethora of industry-led alternative and micro-credentials such as Google Career Development Certificates, Udacity’s nano-degrees, and Microsoft’s technical certifications. MOOC platforms may also rebundle individual courses from higher education institutions into non-credit certificates such as EdX MicroMasters or Coursera Specializations (HolonIQ, 2020).  

It is little surprise then to find that students have little knowledge or understanding of micro-credentials (although they favour the possible advantages of these credentials for employability) as well as favouring some form of external regulation of these credentials.

The benefits of micro-credentials

Much of the literature on micro-credentials discusses their benefits as (a) from employer perspectives linking micro-credentials to skills and workforce development, and (b) providing alternative access routes and pathways into higher education. From the skills and workforce development perspective, micro-credentials:  

  • are widely perceived as a response to the supposed declining status of the traditional degree as a reliable predictor of the workplace skills of graduates (Succi and Canovi, 2020) or future career success (Chamorro-Premuzic and Frankiewicz, 2019). Micro-credentials claim to offer an explicit recognition and validation of student skills and abilities and so give employers reassurance that graduates have the skills they claim are developed through their degree studies; and
  • enable education providers to develop and approve courses at a much swifter pace, offering flexibility in responding to industry, student and government demand (Ralston, 2021). Micro-credentials provide a platform for new forms of industry-academic partnership as seen, for example, at eCampusOntario and highlighted in the recent Scottish Funding Council (SFC) review of tertiary education and research (Scottish Funding Council, 2021). Such flexibility may also contribute to widening participation in higher education though enabling non-traditional students to gain credits towards a traditional degree in ways and timeframes that suit them (Villalba-Garcia and Chakroun, 2019; Perea, 2020).

Implications for students.

In the paper, I argue that micro-credentials suggest a shift in higher education structures away from the traditional degree and towards setting up the student for a lifetime of self-directed learning (Ralston, 2021). Micro-credentials enhance student agency and empowerment while also promoting the individualisation and commodification of education.  But micro-credentials are inadequate in delivering the wider outcomes of socialisation into higher education or disciplinary and professional norms in comparison to the traditional degree (Ositelu, McCann and Laitinen, 2021). As a result, they cannot fully meet the needs lifelong learners in developing the attributes of the self-directed learner nor in promoting learning for its own sake (Ralston, 2021).

Micro-credentials mirror the fragmented and transactional experiences of the increasing precariousness and instability of the labour market.  The optimistic discourses of flexibility in higher education enabled by micro-credentials ignore the diversity of students where their capacities to exercise agency are ableist and gendered and will vary over time. Research from the USA found that micro and short-term credentials in the USA tended to reinforce existing privileges and ethnic and gender disadvantages in tertiary education and in the labour market (Ositelu, McCann and Laitinen, 2021).


Realising the aspirations for transferring and tacking credentials from multiple providers requires significant investment in the development of supporting technical infrastructures. This has remained a significant challenge for the dreams of credit transfer schemes. There are significant developments globally in developing appropriate credit transfer schemes connected to the unbundling of credentials. Examples at the national level include the US-centric Comprehensive Learner Record and Singapore’s lifelong learning credit bank while cross-national schemes are developing in the South East Asia Qualifications Reference Framework, Australia and New Zealand’s student-facing eQuals system, as well as schemes in West Africa and Southern Africa (Cedefop, 2019).


In the paper, I conclude that micro-credentials represent a significant opportunity for students in terms of employability and the recognition and validation of competences. Alternative credentials may also open new approaches to widening participation in higher education. Yet developing micro-credentials cannot be decoupled from broader issues of the investment in infrastructures and reshaping of practices required nor from the importance of protecting the shared vision and values of higher education. 


Cedefop (2019) Global Inventory of Regional and National Qualifications Frameworks Volume II: National and regional cases. Brussels.

Chamorro-Premuzic, T. and Frankiewicz, B. (2019) ‘Does Higher Education Still Prepare People for Jobs?’, Harvard Business Review, pp. 7–10. Available at: https://hbr.org/2019/01/does-higher-education-still-prepare-people-for-jobs (Accessed: 4 July 2021).

European Commission (2020) A European Approach To Micro-Credentials Final Report. Brussels.HolonIQ (2020) Micro and Alternative Credentials. Size, Shape and Scenarios. Available at: https://www.holoniq.com/notes/micro-and-alternative-credentials.-size-shape-and-scenarios-part-1/ (Accessed: 4 July 2021).

Kato, S., Galan-Muros, V. and Weko, T. (2020) The Emergence of Alternative Credentials, OECD Education Working Papers. 216. Paris. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10185392.

Kernohan, D. (2021) Micro-credentials – big problems? | Wonkhe. Available at: https://wonkhe.com/blogs/micro-credentials-big-problems/ (Accessed: 3 May 2021).

Ositelu, M. O., McCann, C. and Laitinen, A. (2021) The Short-term Credentials Landscape What We See and What Remains Unseen. Available at: https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/reports/the-short-term-credentials-landscape/ (Accessed: 14 June 2021).

Pelletier, K. et al. (2021) 2021 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report. Teaching and Learning Edition, Educause. Available at: https://www.educause.edu/horizon-report-2020.

Perea, B. (2020) ‘Using Smaller Credentials to Build Flexible Degree Completion and Career Pathways’, New Directions for Community Colleges, 2020(189), pp. 23–37.

Ralston, S. J. (2021) ‘Higher Education’s Microcredentialing Craze: a Postdigital-Deweyan Critique’, Postdigital Science and Education, 3(1), pp. 83–101.

Scottish Funding Council (2021) Coherence and Sustainability: A Review of Tertiary Education and Research. Edinburgh. Available at: http://www.sfc.ac.uk/review/review.aspx.

Succi, C. and Canovi, M. (2020) ‘Soft skills to enhance graduate employability: comparing students and employers’ perceptions’, Studies in Higher Education, 45(9), pp. 1834–1847.

Villalba-Garcia, E. and Chakroun, B. (2019) ‘RVA that counts: What data do we need to nurture recognition, validation and accreditation of prior learning?’, in Global Inventory of Regional and National Qualifications Frameworks 2019, Volume I: Thematic chapters. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, pp. 45–59.

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