The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO): Making Sense of Microcredentials
by Jeff Brown, L556
The main thing to fasten on with the new HEQCO "Making Sense of Microcredentials" report isn’t the research methodology and critiquing that one way or the other. The bottom line is that there is nothing definitive or conclusive in this report, and certainly nothing that would justify making microcredentials a primary focus for Ontario colleges. In fact, it ends by restating that many questions remain and much more evidence and research is required. Of course, how the Colleges or the College Employer Council (CEC) will utilize this report to further a preferred narrative is another question.
One thing to note off the top is the report’s recommendation that “microcredential strategies should not seek to replace traditional programs” (p. 2). Indeed, according to the report, microcredentials serve no purpose in a lifelong learning system if the necessary foundation is not in place. This needs to be emphasized, especially given the Colleges’ penchant for cherry-picking and being highly selective in what they highlight from reports of this sort.
In this regard, we should recall the oft-cited Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC) report from a few years back on the fiscal outlook of Ontario Colleges. As one possible way of dealing with a projected revenue shortfall, this report recommended cost-cutting across all staffing categories (including administration and management). What was the Colleges’ (and the CEC’s) take away from this and subsequent talking point? It was that the PWC report recommended cutting faculty staffing costs only. Some in management obstinately perpetuated this falsehood and would make ominous reference to the PWC report in department meetings with faculty, many of whom understandably had neither the time nor the inclination to actually wade through the detailed report.
Again, the HEQCO report is quite clear that microcredentials are not effective without a prior “strong foundation of knowledge and transferable skills” (p. 17). The Colleges should focus on shoring up that foundation, especially in these times of uncertainty and disruption. Without such a foundation, there can be no moving forward.
From a bargaining perspective, if the hope is to remove microcredentials from the conversation, this report won’t help with that; but, realistically, that was never going to happen anyway. The way for CAAT-A to approach this report is to emphasize that the report reinforces the fundamental role of quality foundational diploma and degree programs that include broad critical thinking and transferrable skills. The report further affirms the complementary role of microcredentials (and perhaps ‘supplementary’ is more accurate) and the extent to which the best way forward on microcredentials is still unclear. Given the questions still surrounding microcredentials, it makes no sense to rush ahead planning for them when so much is still unknown.
These aspects of the report should be reflected in government policy and funding and in the Colleges’ approach to funding issues. Government has been decreasing post-secondary funding for years, leaving colleges vulnerable and scrambling. The Colleges as a collective should be advocating for and demanding genuine government funding reform rather than praising the government for providing money for microcredential programs. In the present context, praising the government for funding microcredentials while it still fails to properly fund the college system is akin to celebrating someone giving you cash to put an addition on a house that you still can’t afford to build.
Key Excerpts from the Report:
“HEQCO conducted a multi-phase, mixed-methods research project including a literature review, interviews (44), and surveys of Canadian employers (201), prospective students (2,000 Canadian adults) and postsecondary institutions (105).”
“Findings highlight an awareness gap, among Canadians and Canadian employers, about what microcredentials are and who they serve.”
“A microcredential is a representation of learning, awarded for completion of a short program that is focused on a discrete set of competencies (i.e., skills, knowledge, attributes), and is sometimes related to other credentials.”
“In our view, colleges and universities should concentrate less on deconstructing existing curricula for stackability purposes, and more on designing innovative, focused content that serves a new market of students.”
“Microcredential strategies should not seek to replace traditional programs or address the comprehensive reskilling needs of learners; we encourage governments and institutions to consider competency-based education programs for the latter.”
Microcredentials are “a complement to traditional credentials.”
“The microcredential work in Canada is happening quickly and without much precedent or evidence.”
What is a Microcredential?
Two defining characteristics: (1) narrow in scope and (2) short completion time.
‘Stackable’: part of a sequence of learning, leading to a larger credential.
Focus on a ‘discrete set of competencies’.
How Do Employers Perceive Microcredentials?
“About 60% of respondents indicated microcredentials would increase their confidence in a prospective employee’s skills. About two-thirds said they would see a microcredential as highly favourable if it were directly related to the job at hand, competency-based and/or accredited. Survey respondents were less enthusiastic about the “short” aspect of microcredentials from a hiring perspective.”
“Respondents had a slightly different take when asked to think about microcredentials for the purpose of internal staff training and development.”
“About 60% thought it would make sense to develop and offer microcredentials in house for their employees, and 54% were open to working with postsecondary partners to deliver them.”
How Do Canadians Perceive Microcredentials?
“Once survey respondents were provided with a definition, their interest in microcredentials was high: 74% of working age Canadians demonstrated interest in microcredentials for either professional development, personal development or both.”
“In particular, respondents expressed a demand for upskilling related to transferable skills like critical thinking, communications and leadership.”
How are Colleges and Universities Approaching Microcredentials?
“Most respondents thought microcredentials could help address transferable (86%) and technical (81%) skills gaps. And many reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for these sorts of programs. It is not surprising then, that 83% of the representatives taking our survey report their institutional leadership is encouraging the development of microcredentials (though less than 40% claim to have a framework or strategy to guide them).”
A key question that emerged: “Is there something essential lost in the modularization of learning (e.g., general education courses, interconnected skill sets)?”
“Nearly all postsecondary interviewees flagged the lack of clarity and consistency with which the word “microcredential” is used as a major challenge. Some interviewees expressed the difficulty of articulating the value of these new programs to employers and students without a common definition.”
“Our research highlights an awareness gap, among Canadians and Canadian employers, about what microcredentials are and who they serve. Canadians affected by economic disruptions should be aware of emerging opportunities for upskilling and employers should be primed to recognize them.”
“Part of the appeal of microcredentials is that they may help postsecondary institutions respond, quickly and cost-effectively, to emerging social and economic needs; this will more often mean developing innovative new programs, rather than deconstructing existing curricula into shorter modules.”
“Our research reinforces that microcredentials are just one component of an effective lifelong learning system. They hold value primarily in their function as a complement to traditional education, not a replacement.”
Microcredentials are not effective without a prior “strong foundation of knowledge and transferable skills.”
“When thinking about learners entering the postsecondary system directly from high school, we see more value in teaching interconnected competency sets rather than the discrete competencies that microcredentials focus on.”