Becoming more popular in response to the industry skills gap caused by new technologies, microcredentials are bite-sized chunks of learning that can help you to develop knowledge and skills in a specific area
Microcredentials at a glance
- Short courses typically studied online for up to 12 weeks.
- Standalone qualifications offered by universities and learning providers.
- Available in a range of subjects from business and computing to teaching.
- Perfect for upskilling in the workplace and professional development.
What are microcredentials?
Referring to 'mini' or 'small' qualifications, microcredentials are short-term learning experiences designed to help students and employees acquire new skills, progress with their personal development or even change careers.
While some microcredentials may be delivered as in-person classes or training, they're typically offered as on-demand online courses lasting up to 12 weeks.
In the higher education realm, these short courses are often described as 'microdegrees' or 'nanodegrees' and comprise a series of modules. They are becoming more commonly available at postgraduate level in particular - as well as for those who don't yet hold an undergraduate qualification but are interested in achieving credit at that level.
What are the benefits?
- Specialised - Unlike most traditional qualifications, you can choose courses that focus on a particular subject or industry. For instance, if you studied a programming language course in your role as an IT professional, these new and highly relevant skills can simply be applied to your day-to-day job. Upon completion, you'll get a certificate that can be added to your CV and shows you're up to date with the latest industry developments.
- Flexible - Those already engaged in the world of work will find these quick modular-style courses easy to study alongside their career or other responsibilities, without having to commit to a full undergraduate or postgraduate course.
- Accessible - As many of these courses are offered online via distance learning, all you need is a laptop and working internet connection.
- Cost-effective - Compared to most other vocational/professional qualifications, they're also quite cheap. For example, the 10-week Amazon Web Services (AWS) certified AWS: Solutions Architect course from FutureLearn costs £500 and is ideal for those working as systems analysts and solutions architects. After devoting 100 hours of your time to the online course, you'll stand to gain 10 undergraduate university credits, a certificate and 50% off the AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate exam.
What subjects are available?
The range of microcredentials is growing all the time, but examples of popular courses include:
- business management
- computer networks
- project management
- teacher development.
What qualifications can you achieve?
The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) noted in its Quality Compass publication on Which Way for Micro-Credentials? that while there are no restrictions on the amount of credit a microcredential can carry, 'it should not normally constitute an award in its own right on the qualifications frameworks'.
Therefore, microcredentials are not a direct replacement for undergraduate or postgraduate degrees, or indeed other professional qualifications - but they do meet a need for upskilling in the workplace and provide opportunities for lifelong learning. They should be viewed as more of an addition to skills you've already acquired.
The exact qualification you'll gain will depend on your study provider, but these are typically presented as a digital certificate you can include with your CV or add to your LinkedIn profile.
As many of these new courses have been created with input from further education (FE) colleges, universities, business schools and professional bodies, they're often highly vocational and designed to meet the needs of employers in sectors suffering from skills shortages.
How do nanodegrees compare to degrees?
Nanodegrees are certified online educational courses delivered as standalone modules that allow students or professionals to develop skills in a specialist area whereas a traditional Bachelors degree provides you with a complete undergraduate qualification - see our guide to qualifications.
With these shorter courses, you'll likely be studying from home rather than attending lectures and seminars as you'd do when on a traditional degree programme, with project work and case studies often forming part of the assessment.
The biggest difference is the qualification you'll get upon successfully completing the course. As you'd expect, from studying a nanodegree within six to 12 months, the knowledge and skills gained won't compare to a three-year undergraduate degree.
However, some universities offer academic credit for microcredential courses that can be put towards a postgraduate degree using the Credit Accumulation and Transfer System (CATS) framework. Most courses can result in 10 to 20 credits.
For instance, if you studied the 12-week online Introduction to Electrochemistry course at the University of Birmingham, you'd gain 10 university credits. In comparison, for an undergraduate or Masters degree, you'd need to successfully complete 120 or 180 credits respectively.
Where can I find them?
Microcredentials are offered by individual universities, including the University of Glasgow, the University of Kent and the University of Birmingham, often in collaboration with learning providers such as The Open University and FutureLearn.
Many of the courses are accredited by leaders in the industry, such as Microsoft, AWS and Cisco in the IT realm.
These bite-size postgraduate programmes, with entry-level modules providing a more flexible way of learning, are becoming popular with international students - as studying abroad is no longer the only option available.
For instance, Cranfield School of Management has recently launched a new range of global online stackable programmes - in subjects including leadership, financial management, strategic marketing and supply chain management - that can be studied from anywhere in the world.
Are microcredentials recognised by employers?
As microcredentials are a relatively new style of learning, you'll find that some industries recognise these qualifications more than others. They're becoming popular in the fields of finance, business, IT and marketing where employees are regularly required to upskill.
Even if you've already studied a degree, a microcredential course may help to set you apart from other job applicants, but again this will depend on the sector you're looking to enter.
Read about the skills employers are looking for and discover other ways to improve your graduate employability.
Find out more
- Explore postgraduate diplomas and certificates.
- Consider taking a conversion course to change career.
- Discover other alternatives to university.