Microcredentials need macro-investment


The depressed jobs market faced by this year’s graduates is likely to continue for some time and cast a long shadow.

Research by the Resolution Foundation found that, in the UK, young people graduating immediately after the 2008 financial crisis suffered higher unemployment, lower pay and worse employment prospects for several years compared with graduates before the crisis.

Graduates, though, are likely to fare better than non-graduates. Although studies have suggested that nearly a third of graduates may be overeducated for the jobs they occupy, they are at least more likely to get jobs. Furthermore, this skills mismatch is hard to pin down in a way that could justify reducing provision in one subject and expanding it in another – or reducing degree places altogether.

Job requirements are continually changing, usually in the direction of attributes that all graduates develop: problem-solving, analytic thinking, project management and collaboration. Above all, savvy employers value the graduate trait of “learnability”: the ability to find out, evaluate what’s found, apply findings to new problems and learn quickly from what works – or doesn’t.

Learnability is driving demand – predominantly among graduates in work – for microcredentials: short courses with academic accreditation and industry sponsorship that address specific needs to know something now, not in three years.

National furlough schemes are spending huge amounts of money on trying to keep as many employees and businesses afloat as possible, but in the old economy. We also need investment in the skills that will drive the emerging economy: the digitalisation of everything, from choosing a meal in a restaurant to, ultimately, producing what we want at home on 3D printers. This obviously requires technology, but also guidance from expert humans.

Their expertise will be maintained via online microcredentials. Online learning has come into its own during the Covid-19 outbreak, but students at the Open University have been learning from screens of one form or another for more than 50 years. We can even teach engineering and run science experiments remotely, with students operating real equipment and tools from their laptops or tablets.

We have made available all our free courses on new websites recently set up by the UK government to help furloughed and unemployed workers develop new skills or test out new careers. There has been a surge of traffic, but far fewer students than we might have hoped are taking the further step of registering for a module of study. This is when they would engage in deep learning, earn credit and start on the path to a qualification.

The reason is likely to be cost. When, in England, direct government funding for higher education courses was cut dramatically in 2012, universities responded by raising fees to the maximum then permitted of £9,000 a year for full-time students. Young students were not deterred because they could take out government-subsidised loans that limited repayments depending on earnings. However, part-time students – mostly adults with work and family commitments, or with disabilities requiring them to study online – felt very differently about the trebling of fees, particularly as there were no loans for studying a single module, however relevant to a skill need.

This collapse in part-time learning has not occurred elsewhere in the UK because governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have continued to fund part-time courses to keep fees low. In Wales, this extends to maintenance grants and loans for online study, with the effect of almost doubling part-time numbers over the past two years.

Doing something similar in England is critical. The country’s main skills challenge is not over-education but improving the existing workforce’s higher technical, business and professional skills. We need lower fees and maintenance loans for short accredited online courses as well as full qualifications – targeted, if desired, on courses that create economic opportunity, on regions most at risk from the recession, and on people with the most disadvantage in the jobs market.

This would be a much better use of public funds than paying people not to work or study. We need graduates to upskill and embrace the emerging economy – not downshift and displace the less qualified from jobs they are perfectly able to do.

Author Bio: Tim Blackman is vice-chancellor of the Open University.