Deciding Whether to Enrol in a Micro-Credential, a Skill Set, or a Full VET Qualification

17/06/2021

Joy de Leo is the Manager of the Research and Data Analytics Branch at the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER). NCVER is the national professional body responsible for collecting, managing, analysing and communicating research and statistics on the Australian vocational education and training (VET) sector. 

When it comes to choosing which vocational education and training (VET) study to undertake, it can be very confusing, particularly for school leavers and new entrants to the workforce.

Not only are there decisions to be made about a preferred industry area and field of study, but there’s also an array of nationally recognised qualifications and accredited courses to choose from, in addition to short forms of training discussed further in this blog. 

Once that choice is made, then there’s the matter of which level is appropriate, from a Certificate I, II, II or IV to a Diploma and Advanced Diploma, designed to create pathway opportunities to further study and career advancement. How about an Apprenticeship or a Traineeship? Whether to study part-time or full-time, online, face-to-face or by mixed mode of delivery, and which training provider to choose? Confusing, isn’t it?

It certainly pays for intending students to seek advice from an expert, and there are websites that can be very helpful such as www.myskills.gov.au and www.joboutlook.gov.au. Local training providers can also assist in working through the many options.

As mentioned earlier, there are options for short forms of training within VET that are not so well known among potential VET students. For example, if applicants already have one or more qualifications and are looking for a job that requires a specific set of skills that they don’t have, they might consider enrolling in a short form of training such as a nationally recognised skill set or other micro-credential. They might already be in the workforce and need to upgrade their skills when work practices change, or new technology or additional safety requirements are introduced, as we saw during COVID-19: a skill set or a micro-credential can give them just what they need relatively quickly, without having to complete a full course or qualification.

What’s a micro-credential you ask?
And what’s the difference between that and a skill set?

Sometimes people use these terms interchangeably as if they mean the same thing, but they’re slightly different. This confusion is perfectly understandable since there isn’t, as yet, an agreed definition for micro-credentials in VET in Australia.

Nonetheless, micro-credentials in the VET context can be considered an ‘umbrella’ or collective term for short forms of VET training, whether nationally recognised or part of an accredited qualification, or not. 

Skill sets are nationally recognised forms of micro-credentials from a VET Training Package. According to the national VET regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA, 2020), a skill set is ‘a single unit of competency or a combination of units of competency from a training package, which links to a licensing or regulatory requirement, or a defined industry need.’ This means that a skill set, while not a full VET qualification, is always accredited or nationally recognised, and as such is quality assured and always assessed, for which students can potentially receive credit towards a full qualification, should they wish to do so. Training Package skill sets are pre-identified and listed on the Myskills website, some of which may be funded or subsidised by states and territories where there is an identified shortage. Although students can choose to enrol in any combination of available units of competency from one or more qualifications (and do so), such groups of units are not nationally recognised skill sets.

Micro-credentials, on the other hand, can either be nationally recognised, or not.

Some examples of non-nationally recognised micro-credentials are industry-valued certifications issued by companies such as Microsoft and CISCO. These indicate to employers, that specific digital skills, knowledge and/or experience might be held by an applicant or employee. In some cases, some of these non-nationally recognised micro-credentials might be ‘stacked’ and counted towards a full qualification, but this practice is not consistent.

The definition and status of nationally recognised VET micro-credentials in Australia, however, is less clear. The important thing is to ensure the quality and consistency of these nationally recognised micro-credentials, according to national VET quality assurance requirements, so they can be assessed and credited towards full qualifications.

In summary, skill sets are nationally recognised and have an agreed definition,
whereas micro-credentials are broader and amorphous, and do not yet have an official agreed definition in VET.

Nonetheless, a recent NCVER report (Palmer, 2021) found that in 2019, there were about 2.6 million students enrolled in these micro-credentials (called ‘subject bundles’, usually of about 3 subjects or less), compared with 76 565 students enrolled in training package skill sets; a significant difference. Based on this, the report argued that micro-credential enrolments can be seen as a more important form of short-form study than training package skill sets.

Most of the micro-credential enrolments were concerned with regulation and skills maintenance, involved with workplace safety, emergency preparedness and authority to operate. These are primarily paid for by employers or students themselves on a fee-for-service basis, indicating that there is either a regulatory requirement, or the training is seen by them as having value. The 2021 NCVER report found that there are opportunities for governments to consider funding or subsidising ‘non-regulatory’ micro-credentials, to foster labour market participation in areas where there may be emerging or persistent skill gaps.

Some examples of the most popular micro-credentials relate to, for example: first aid; CPR; working safely in construction and at heights; operating a forklift; and responsible service of alcohol, to name a few. Enrolments in these are relatively stable from year to year.

So, what does this mean for intending students trying to decide whether to undertake a full qualification, a skill set or a micro-credential. Well, the answer is … it depends. 

Skill sets and micro-credentials are not intended to replace or substitute a full qualification. 

From the career perspective of a school leaver or new entrant to the job market, a full qualification can be beneficial as a strong foundation to build upon later with short courses, micro-credentials and individual subjects as additional skills are required. Depending on individual circumstances, a student might need to upskill quickly with a micro-credential in order to get a job (e.g. in hospitality) to fund later training in a full qualification leading to their desired long-term employment. Alternatively, the availability of government-funded or subsidised skill sets might influence choice, if this is the only way that an individual can afford to undertake training for a job.

Employers, on the other hand, tend to look for, or invest in, specific essential or regulated skills among their new or existing staff, without the expense of paying for a full qualification. Once an intending job applicant knows the type of work they want to do, they can undertake the necessary short form of training to get a foot in the door with their preferred employer.

In short, there is a place for full qualifications, recognised skill sets and micro-credentials depending on individual circumstances. That’s the beauty of flexibility in VET.

Whatever the circumstances, it’s always advisable for students to obtain professional advice for making the best decision to suit their personal situation.

For more information about micro-credentials see NCVER’s most recent report: Bryan Palmer 2021, An analysis of ‘micro-credentials’ in VET, NCVER, Adelaide.


Check out CDAA's Blog Career Panorama