New blueprint paper unpacks micro-credentials

25 January 2023



In many countries, micro-credentials are seen as a way to re-skill and up-skill. But what exactly are they? In fact, dozens of definitions are used across the globe, posing a challenge to quality assurance. To help clarify this, UNESCO has introduced a clear and neutral universal definition. Now, a new policy paper from IIEP-UNESCO offers a blueprint for policy development and explores it in detail with country examples and key challenges and solutions to provide a path forward for strong implementation.

Establishing a universal definition 

  • Micro-credentials are a record of focused learning achievement. They verify what learners know, understand, or can do. 
  • They are assessed based on clearly defined standards and are awarded – such as a badge or certificate – by a trusted provider.
  • They have stand-alone value and can also contribute to or complement other micro-credentials or macro-credentials, including through recognition of prior learning.
  • They meet the standards required by relevant quality assurance. 

Removing barriers, creating greater choice for learners 

Micro-credentials are an important example of individualized flexible learning pathways, which can offer increased learner choice and autonomy and eliminate barriers to access and progression in education systems. In this sense, they are viewed as essential for adapting formal education systems to the needs of more diverse learner communities, including first-generation learners, disadvantaged groups, like refugees, and returning students. This is also an important part of the Education 2030 Agenda. 

With changing labor market needs and technological advancements, the papers’ authors, Michaela Martin and Peter van der Hijden, argue that now is the time to build consensus on micro-credentials for the benefit of all learners and society. 

As higher education systems rapidly expand and diversity, micro-credentials are at the centre of the international policy discussion.

In addition to a new neutral and universal definition of micro-credentials, the paper looks at the standard elements - such as credit points, awarding bodies, and assessment methods, among others – that make the new definition fully operational.  It also explores the actors – e.g., learners, providers, employers, quality assurance agencies, and others – and roles, which form part of the ecosystem needed to support the successful development of micro-credentials. 

10 challenges, 10 solutions 

The paper explores ten concerns of this growing credential trend, as well as ten counter-arguments and possible actions for improved implementation. Topics include concerns about the quality of pedagogy, to doubts about level, credit points, progression, coherence, assessment, certification, and labour market value. 

For example, the first challenge discusses the perceived low quality of short courses and micro-credentials. This can be because they are not part of degree education, which is more regulated. However, the quality is likely to be relatively high, the authors posit, as they are in the public domain and subject to public scrutiny, and therefore generally more efforts go into their preparation. 

Actions to ensure high quality include encouraging dialogue and peer learning on how to enhance quality, involving third parties in their design and delivery, and expanding the scope of internal quality assurance, among others. A further nine challenges are dissected, with counter perspectives and concrete steps to remedy any issues. 

The paper also draws on a range of country experiences, studies, and projects from all world regions, and highlights good practices. 

Finally, it ends with seven recommendations targeted at public policy-makers to foster coordinated action, including further research to better understand short-course provision at country level and obstacles to the development of micro-credentials, as well as their added value for individual learners, the economy, and society at large.

7 recommendations for micro-credentials

  1. Adopt a national policy framework 
  2. Create a multi-actor learning ecosystem 
  3. Develop comprehensive national qualifications frameworks
  4. Build infrastructure for digital storage of learning 
  5. Ensure internal and external quality assurance
  6. Allocate resources for course providers and learners
  7. Carry out actionable research to monitor developments

Watch the paper lunch webinar