August 21, 2020

Zombie skills sets resurrected as micro credentials

Article By: Professor Gavin Moodie and Professor Leesa Wheelahan

Skills sets

Australian vocational education and training has long experience of micro credentials in the form of skills sets.

Skill sets were first created in training packages in 2008 and by 2019 there were almost 1,500 training package skill sets. The NCVER’s John Stanwick and Gitta Siekmann’s analysis of training package skill sets in 2019 found that a little under 40% of skill sets are in just five training packages or around 10% of all training packages.

Most skills sets comprise three to four units of competency, although there are over 100 skills sets with only one competency and there is one skills set with 33 competencies.

Training package skills sets never seem to have been popular with students: they were only 3.7% of all program enrolments in 2018.

Stanwick and Siekmann found that only around 16% of skills sets had any reported enrolment for each of the years 2015 to 2018, and just 10 skill sets or under 1% of all skills sets accounted for 68% of enrolments in 2018. Those skills sets were concentrated in a small number of training packages, so that just 5 training packages accounted for 83% of training package skill sets enrolments in 2018, and indeed just 3 training packages accounted for 73% of the enrolments.

Conversely, there were over 1,100 or about 84% of training package skill sets with no enrolment in 2018.

Over 75% of skills sets enrolments were in New South Wales and Queensland in 2018.

Skills sets are not used mostly to top up or upgrade existing qualifications, since only 41% of students enrolled in a skills set in 2018 had a certificate III or higher.

Skills sets probably under reported

The skills set with the biggest enrolment was; ‘Responsible service of alcohol’, which had about 13,800 skills set enrolments in 2018. However, there were an additional 178,490 subject-only enrolments in ‘Responsible service of alcohol’ in 2018, which were not reported with a skill set program identifier.

Stanwick and Siekmann report that ‘in 2018 there were over 2.5 million students enrolled in subjects that were reported as not being associated with qualifications, accredited courses or training package skill sets’. They found that ‘many of these students are enrolled in combinations of units that have likely been developed and offered to students as non-nationally recognised skills sets, or in other cases, are enrolled in nationally recognised skills sets but not reported as such.’

This lead Stanwick and Siekmann to infer that there is significant under-reporting of skills sets enrolments. They plan a second report to analyse all student enrolments in units or combinations of units that are not nationally recognised or reported as skill sets.

Lesser outcomes from incomplete qualifications

Skills sets are probably not popular with students because of their educational limitations, which we elaborate below, and because of their comparatively weak outcomes. While I have been unable to find a report of the outcomes of students who have completed skills sets, NCVER has published a number of studies finding that students who do not complete a full qualification have lower outcomes than graduates who complete a qualification.

Tom Karmel and Peter Fieger reported in 2012 that there was substantial value in completing a vocational education qualification. Graduates who completed a qualification improved their employment outcome by 35% more than students who did not complete a qualification, and completing a qualification improved graduates’ prospects of proceeding to further study by 123%.

In a more recent study completed for the NCVER in 2015 Tham Lu found similar results for studies in the trades:

Compared with module completers, graduates are estimated to have a 12% higher chance of being employed after training, a 27% higher chance of having their employment status improved after training, and a 71% higher likelihood of working in jobs that match their training.

Micro credentials in higher education

One might have expected such poor outcomes from uncompleted qualifications to kill off micro credentials, but in its all too familiar necromancy the Australian government pushed the undead micro credentials onto higher education.

The government commissioned a review of the Australian qualifications framework to recognise micro credentials ‘to allow providers to offer short, highly-targeted courses to students and employers looking to fill a skills gap without getting bogged down in red tape’, as Minister Tehan claimed in his media release announcing the outcomes of the review in October 2019.

Universities’ responses were tepid. But the Minister had his opportunity 6 months later as the covid19 pandemic took hold, by including micro credentials in the higher education relief package in April 2020. It is yet another example of that tiresomely familiar political trope:

Because of alleged disruption x we should implement my hobby horse y, where in this case x = covid19 and y = micro credentials.

The higher education relief package guaranteed government payment to universities for government places regardless of whether they were filled, but offered no support for the expected loss of international students, who provide 26% of universities’ income. Instead the government encouraged higher education institutions to offer ‘higher education certificates’ of up to half a year’s full time study, at least initially from May to December 2020.

Undergraduate certificates

To authorise these the federal government had to get the Council of Australian Government’s education and skills councils to approve the inclusion of the undergraduate certificate as an addendum to the Australian qualifications framework. Undergraduate certificates can be at Australian qualification level 5 (diploma), 6 (advanced diploma or associate degree), or 7 (bachelor). The framework already has graduate certificates and graduate diplomas at level 8.

By May 2020 some 22 universities had listed 202 short courses on the Government’s course seeker website, about half graduate certificates and half undergraduate certificates. Universities have long offered graduate certificates and diplomas, which are reported with other qualifications as ‘other postgraduate’ which in 2018 were 2.4% of all higher education institutions’ student load and 9.6% of their postgraduate load.

In addition the Minister announced in May that the federal government is funding 1,015 places in 58 undergraduate certificates at ‘mostly private providers’.

Micro credentials are poor in principle because they reflect the failures of human capital theory, they seek to put education in an employment straitjacket, and reflect the skills fetish, which alienates productive work from the people who do that work.

Failures of human capital theory

Human capital theory has been the orthodoxy in tertiary education since at least the 1980s. It claims that there is a direct relation between appropriate education, the development of graduates’ productive skills, an increase in graduate worker’s productivity, and an increase in the value of the graduate’s work. It is said to apply at the levels of the individual, employer, industry, region, and country.

Human capital theory has been criticised since the 1960s on theoretical and empirical grounds. Here we object strongly to tertiary education being limited to preparing graduates for jobs. All tertiary education including vocational education has an important role developing graduates’ understanding of and participation in society, and it has important social justice roles. And we observe that well over half of adults in Australia, Canada, and the UK report that they work in a different field to the field of their highest qualification. Their productive careers cannot be explained by a simple human capital theory. Human capital theory also ignores the social contexts of occupations, and the social contexts of individuals by focusing on specific knowledge, skills and other requirements for jobs.

The loose match between formal tertiary education and work has been bridged by employers’ induction and internal training programs. However, employers cut their investment in their employees’ training by 40% over the last two decades in Australia, Canada, the UK, and the USA. This has intensified calls, not for employers to reinvest in their employees’ development, but for education to be tied ever more tightly to the jobs for which it is meant to prepare graduates. It is students and governments who pay these costs. This is wrong for at least four reasons.

Putting education in an employment straitjacket

  • Tying education even more closely to a particular occupation would reduce its relevance to the other occupations for which qualifications are currently relevant.

  • Secondly, tying education more closely to work ignores the role of demand for graduates in shaping the match between education and work. Employers consistently look at the level of qualification graduates have to ‘screen’ them for jobs, so those with degrees have better labour market outcomes than those with diplomas.

  • Thirdly, numerous studies have shown labour market forecasting to be far too imprecise to plan educational provision in detail. Anticipating the demand for workers is so notoriously unreliable that it is said that labour market forecasting was invented to give astrology a good name.

  • A fourth reason for not tying education to specific occupations is the uncertainty in future occupations expected to be brought about the introduction of new digital technologies to work and its organisation, known as ‘the 4th industrial revolution’.

Micro credentials seek to facilitate gig work

Micro credentials are the most recent attempt to improve the match between education and work by changing education, while leaving work unchanged. Micro credentials are designed to atomise learning by certifying small amounts of learning.

In principle micro credentials may be awarded for mastering academic knowledge, but overwhelmingly they are contemplated for acquiring knowledge and skills that can be applied directly to the workplace. The Minister restricted undergraduate certificates ‘to national priority areas such as nursing, teaching, health, IT and science’.

Alternative: Knowledge and its certification matters

The first step in pushing back against micro credentials is to reiterate the importance of knowledge in understanding the world, in being the core of expertise, and in informing expert judgement. We are not restricting ‘knowledge’ to theoretical knowledge, but include applied knowledge and expert skills, which embed knowledge.

Knowledge’s certification in qualifications is important for two reasons. Qualifications’ rules specify what is valuable to know at what depth, and guides students on how that knowledge should be sequenced and developed.

Secondly, qualifications signal to society in general and to employers in particular that graduates have a body of knowledge and expertise in the qualification’s domain. Qualifications’ critics claim that employers are not interested in people with broad knowledge and expertise, but in paying only for the application of specific skills that are signalled by micro credentials and badges.

But so far employers have not shown widespread interest in developing expertise in evaluating new types of credentials and matching them to their internal needs. Thus far they have preferred to rely on readily recognised qualifications.

We therefore argue that all tertiary students should be supported to attain a qualification that is:

  • valued in society and in the labour market;
  • prepares them for a career and for citizenship; and
  • is based on deep, meaningful and sustained engagement with theoretical knowledge to participate in debates in society and in their field of practice.

  • Gavin Moodie is adjunct professor in the Department of Leadership, Higher, and Adult Education, OISE, University of Toronto & adjunct professor of education at RMIT University, Australia

    Leesa Wheelahan is William G. Davis Chair in Community College Leadership, Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

    This article was originally published in The Australian TAFE Teacher, Winter 2020