Why we’re developing micro-credentials – and you should too

These super-short, modularised courses are an evolutionary step in our response to changing sector needs

These super-short, modularised courses are an evolutionary step in our response to changing sector needs

23 Apr 2024, 5:00

In recent years, we’ve seen collaboration between FE colleges and employers intensify as we attempt to tackle the widening skills gaps affecting major sectors. While this is a brilliant response from the sector, we need to be really honest with ourselves and ask: are we approaching this in the best way? 

Instead of just consulting with employers to help inform our existing offering, shouldn’t we actually be working with them and each other to design entirely new qualifications, ones that are able to address specific needs, and that make FE a lot more accessible?

As a group of eight FE colleges across north and south east London (along with partner sixth form colleges, HE providers and adult education centres), we’re doing just that. After being awarded £6.5 million as part of the Government’s Local Skills Improvement Fund, we’re using a chunk of that to consult closely with employers and design new courses and qualifications. Specifically, we’re focusing on micro-credentials in green and digital skills.

These mini courses are based around a particular learning outcome an employer has told us they need. They can be a stand-alone qualification or can be stacked to form part of a larger qualification which could be equivalent to a HNC or HND.

Currently, we’re developing 50 externally accredited micro-credentials in areas including building information modelling, retrofit and power BI. These range from 10 to 120 hours of learning and can be delivered in bite-sized ‘modules’ of 15 to 20 minutes, making learning more flexible for those in work. We believe this approach throws the doors open to making FE infinitely more accessible and financially viable.

Imagine you’re an employer and you want a plumber with 20+ years of experience to upskill in retrofitting. You don’t want to put them through a 40-week training course, which may require attending a local college one day a week. Huge chunks of the course would be telling them what they already know. Instead, putting them through a tailored 20-hour online course would be far more appealing and cost-effective. 

If it doesn’t already exist, build it!

It means that a broader range of employers would be able to engage with FE at volume. It even means that they could design a bigger national qualification (if it meets the study hours requirement) that’s bespoke to a specific role, by taking a pick-and-mix approach to micro-credentials. In turn, this would boost the extent to which employers are using the apprenticeship levy to fund skills training, assuming the qualification met the levy criteria. 

We’re also working hard to ensure that micro-credentials are financially viable for smaller employers, where possible. For example, we’re looking to align all appropriate micro-credentials with the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) to make them eligible for CITB grant funding, where unused levy gets reallocated to smaller construction firms.

For a sector where 95 per cent of employers are SMEs, this is an integral step. Without this access to funding, there’s a danger that we leave huge sections of industry with technical skills gaps that are too difficult to overcome.

For individuals too, micro-credentials can open new routes to funded learning. From 2025, individuals will be able to use their Lifelong Learning Entitlement for micro-credentials if, like ours, they’re externally CPD-accredited.

Currently, many individuals pay for CPD out of their own pocket, which can be a significant barrier to upskilling. Again, we’re working with sector-specialist training providers such as the BIM Academy to offer learners a direct route. 

Ultimately, micro-credentials offer FE providers a means of being much more agile and responsive to emerging skills challenges. Instead of tinkering with the existing curriculum, if it’s not feasible as a programme offering, we need to evolve.

Micro-credentials give us a brilliant opportunity to do that. This is a key strategy in responding to Local Skills Improvement Plan policy, as well as demonstrating a responsive approach to meeting ‘local need’ in ESFA local accountability agreements.

If it doesn’t already exist as an off-the-shelf programme, build it! We encourage other FE colleges and groups to consider taking a similar approach, and look at how they can better align provision with employer needs.

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