The Recent Rise of Micro-Credentials

The coronavirus crisis has prompted a surge of interest in short, low-cost, online courses (micro-credentials) at higher education institutions. Read on to discover why. 

A microcredential is a sector-endorsed short course that provides the recipient with specialist skills. 

These types of courses givstudents the opportunity to attain skills that may propel them further in their chosen career, as well as access up-to-date research and insights from different sectors.  

Some microcredentials also act as additional credits for students to add to future or current undergraduate or postgraduate study.  

While micro-credentials have existed at universities for some time, they’ve historically been overshadowed by undergraduate and postgraduate study, as well as university research efforts.  

With the rise of the digital age, companies such as CourseraEdX, or Udacity made it easier to access microcredentials, raising the profile of these bite-sized courses and establishing them as a valued option in further education. 

How has the coronavirus pandemic encouraged greater interest in microcredentials? 

According to a study by Strada, since the onset of the pandemic, Americans have expressed a consistent interest in non-degree and skills training education options. 

Results from their weekly and bi-weekly surveys from April to August 2020 reveal that an average of 37% of respondents expressed an interest in skills training and 25% expressed an interest in non-degree credentials 

While this survey focuses on the US, it’s reflective of wider trend that has developed in the higher education sector over the last few months 

With forced closures of venues and disruptions to supply chains, the coronavirus crisis has had a significant financial impact on many companies and industries.  

As a result, companies have been forced to cut operational costs, with many opting to furlough or dismiss staff. 

In June of this year, the BBC reported that one in four workers in the UK had been furloughed, resulting in 8.9 million employees joining the UK governmentfurlough scheme.  

Unemployment has also increased globally, with the OECD reporting a “record rise” of 2.9to 8.4% global unemployment in just one month (March to April), with the US accounting for a large proportion of this figure.  

The disruption and uncertainty caused by changes in employment status has forced many people to reassess their career prospects. 

In the time usually spent in full-time employment, many people have turned to microcredentials to improve their chances of finding new employment or to work on any weaknesses in their current skill set  

During a recession, it’s common to see an increase of interest in postgraduate study, as people look to ways to improve their job prospects.  

In 2009, The Guardian reported that multiple UK universities were seeing a rise in the number of applicants for postgraduate study, a direct result of the recession that many countries were experiencing at the time.  

Glasgow University experienced a 46% increase in postgraduate applications, and Manchester University saw a 14% increase in domestic and EU applicants and 34% increase in international applicants. 

While postgraduate courses provide students with a wealth of knowledge in a specific field, likely placing them in a better position in the employment market, they often require students to invest a significant amount of time and money.  

Microcredentialoffer greater flexibility (allowing students to study around other commitments) and are shorter in length. Additionally, they are low cost, and in some cases, free. 

These features of micro-credentials can also help encourage the globalization of higher education, offering international students the opportunity to attain an accredited course from a prestigious university, without having to live abroad 

This is particularly beneficial for countries suffering from brain drain, such as South Africa and Ethiopia, as young people are more likely to remain in their home countries if they are given remote access to higher education abroad 

The recent rise in interest for micro-credentials also presents the higher education sector with many opportunities.  

Harvard University and MIT recently made several courses available for free, with the option to pay for a certificate, attracting even more interest to their microcredential offering. 

Microcredentials are also beneficial to universities as they demand very few additional resources to establish.  

While there are several administrative steps required to transfer course content online, it comes at little cost to the university and instead maximizes the resources available.  

Microcredentials also provide institutions with the opportunity to make significant impact in their field of expertise.  

By teaming up with accredited bodies and industry experts, and by utilizing current research, universities can develop forward-thinking and cutting-edge microcredentials that can help establish their reputation in specific fields of study 

It’s clear that the disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis has highlighted the benefits of microcredentials to students and institutions, creating greater opportunities for people to stand out in the employment market.  

Discover how to best prepare your graduates for the tough global job market by downloading a free copy of our latest report: QS Employer Insights Report 2020. 


More QS Insights

Building boundaries
Read more

Sign up for industry insights

Receive the latest insights, expertise and commentary on the topics which matter most in higher education, straight to your inbox.

Sign up