When Michael Elwan’s commute disappeared when Covid-19 prompted him to work-from-home in March, he decided to invest his freed-up time in a 10-week “micro-masters” in leadership at the University of Queensland (UQ). The contracts manager at the not-for-profit Uniting WA was already completing a Masters in Social Work but wanted to focus on leadership for more immediate career progression plans.
Despite the entire course being online, he was “amazed” by the networking opportunities he had with fellow students from all over the world.
“The course taught me how to lead teams from different backgrounds in turbulent times, which was especially relevant,” he says.
Elwan isn’t alone.
UQ’s leadership course saw a jump of almost 300 per cent in enrolments this year compared to the first half of last year. A total of 40,000 people have enrolled in the university’s top three micro-masters courses in 2020.
It comes as hundreds of thousands of Australians stare into one of the grimmest consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic: higher unemployment and underemployment, and greater anxiety about job security.
Like in previous recessions, demand for higher education and skills training is tipped to rise – in part because there aren't many well-paying alternatives, but also due to necessity in a more competitive and changing jobs market.
However, not everyone has the financial means or appetite to tackle an entire degree. And with many industries undergoing profound upheavals, it’s difficult to know whether the skills learnt will be relevant by the time they are acquired.
Micro-credentials, by contrast, offer a short, sharp and cost-effective opportunity for learning. Course length varies from a couple of hours to several months and anything from email etiquette to data analytics can be learned.
“Micro-credentials offer a way to rapidly refresh your professional profile. It could help you scale some kind of career hurdle, get a pay rise, change jobs or move into an adjacent area,” says Dr Robert Kay, Executive Director of Incept Labs.
In April, Education Minister Dan Tehan announced that the government would subsidise six-month micro-credentials in nursing, teaching, health, information technology, with fifty-four universities responded by creating micro-credential courses. The government is now creating a nationally consistent digital platform to compare micro-credential course outcomes and credit point value, among other things.
This is important, because a current lack of standardisation means that outcomes and even quality can vary, says Kay.
“Ultimately, the value of a micro-credential is determined by who recognises it and for what. The risks relate to their currency at present, because micro-credentials aren’t mapped to the Australian Qualifications Framework. It’s therefore difficult to find an equivalence with other forms of qualifications,” Kay says.
Nonetheless, many employers already recognise the value of micro-credentials as a form of professional development. For example, Westpac in 2018 rolled out The Business Institute, an internal “school” for business bankers developed in consultation with leading business schools that delivers educational content, access to world-class teachers and credits towards external qualifications.
Laura Tien, digital content and partnerships associate at co-working hub Workit, says micro-credentials can help differentiate businesses from competitors, “especially during tough times like now”. She recently completed a six-hour micro-credentials course in Google Analytics, using her newfound skills to help Workit leverage data to make better decisions on ad spending. She also has a digital badge to add to her Linkedin profile.
“It was really interactive – I had to click through the actual application before being able to move onto the next part, which helped me retain the information,” she says. “My university degree taught me theories of marketing, but it wasn’t useful in terms of technical skills, which are so important these days,” she says.
UQ Associate Professor Tim Kastelle, who runs the corporate innovation micro-masters course, believes that micro-credentials will be a disruptive force in Australia’s education system and much needed add-ons for professionals.
“The idea that an undergraduate degree gives you the skills you need for the rest of your career is obsolete – if it was ever really true. The nature of work is changing and there is an almost constant need to be learning new things: and shorter forms of learning can accommodate that,” he says.
“Someone might say to themselves, ‘I’ve just been promoted to team leader, so I’ll do a course on leading high performing teams.’ It’s about figuring out how to do a specific thing, rather than wanting to develop an integrated body of knowledge as you get from a degree.”
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Westpac Group.