Policies promoting digital education credentials

3 common challenges and how to address them

April 26, 2024

  • Policymakers, organizations, and practitioners around the world that are attempting to implement digital credentials and LERs at scale have identified three common challenges.
  • Countries do not often consider employers as key stakeholders in the process of developing and implementing policies surrounding digital credentials and LERs.
  • It is often unclear how digital credential and LER programs should be funded once they move beyond pilot stages, which are typically publicly funded.
  • Countries may need to make changes in existing legal frameworks in order to support the implementation of digital credential and LER initiatives.

Countries and education systems around the world are experimenting with innovative ways to enable learners to access additional education and career opportunities in support of their transition “from learning to earning.” One approach gaining traction involves the use of new types of digital education credentials and learning and employment records (LERs). Much of the research attention on the use of LERs has focused on the United States. Previous work at Brookings examined an emerging landscape of education and workforce innovations, with a focus on digital credentials and LERs. A follow-up report explored three case studies of initiatives supporting the introduction of digital education credentials in different contexts. Our recent blog post provided a lens through which leaders of LERs efforts in the United States might understand ongoing efforts in Europe to introduce digital education credentials and LERs. In this post, we’ll examine three common challenges being faced by efforts to introduce LERs at scale outside the United States, and the key questions that policymakers and practitioners in seven countries are asking as they seek to address them.

By briefly examining the landscape of related policy development processes in four European countries, as well as in three other Anglophone countries, we can highlight some common challenges associated with integrating the use of digital education credentials into existing national educational and workforce development programs. By doing so, we hope to contribute to the development of a common framework that can enable the sharing of perspectives and approaches across borders, so that solutions to such challenges can be discovered and implemented.

Surveying the landscape of LER policy

Micro-credentials in Europe

Across Europe, several countries are actively engaging in the implementation of “micro-credentials,” the term most commonly used across the continent, heavily focusing on higher education and vocational education and training. In June 2022, the Council of the European Union (EU) adopted a proposal on a European approach to micro-credentials to help develop new learning pathways within higher education and vocational education and training institutions. This helped to expand opportunities for lifelong learning and complementing other initiatives driving the transition toward digitally advanced and ecologically sustainable economies, often referred to as the “digital and green transitions.” Shortly thereafter, with financial support from the EU, the OECD launched a Micro-credential Implementation Project in August 2022 to assist Finland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain in their efforts to develop national measures and outline practical approaches and steps that countries can take to deliver on the potential of micro-credentials. These are the results so far:

Finland: Responding to the European Union’s Council Recommendation on micro-credentials, the Ministry of Education and Culture (OKM) in Finland established a working group to develop and implement micro-credentials in its higher education system. Finland’s new initiative, the Finnish National Strategy for Continuous Learning in Higher Education 2030, serves as a clarifying document for the role of higher education institutions as part of the country’s Continuous Learning Reform that began in 2020. The use of micro-credentials, in accordance with EU guidelines, is one mechanism to support “continuous learning” and to acknowledge and “make better use of existing skills,” in response to the skills shortage.

Slovakia: In 2021, the government of Slovakia adopted a new Strategy for Lifelong Learning and Counselling for the years 2021-2030, which addresses the need to offer continuous learning opportunities to the individuals and the population experiencing skill shortages. Following the EU recommendation, Slovakia, like Finland, endorsed its National Reform Programme 2023. This plan includes the introduction of short courses and micro-credentials, primarily provided by higher education institutions. That said, the country’s new Lifelong Learning Act, which provides a new classification of the National Qualification System and establishes a legal framework for new micro-credentials, has remained in draft form since 2022.

Slovenia: Slovenian higher education institutions are currently in the process of developing pilot micro-credential programs as a component of the Reforming Higher Education for a Green and Resilient Transition to Society 5.0 initiative. The resolution on the National Programme of Higher Education to 2030 briefly addresses the strategy for integrating lifelong learning into the higher education sphere in Slovenia. That said, the necessary revision to the current Higher Education Act, which aims to establish a legal framework for incorporating lifelong learning as a fundamental mission of Slovenian higher education institutions, has not yet been drafted.

Spain: Under the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility, the government of Spain has committed to the development and adoption of micro-credentials within the Spanish higher education system. Royal Decree 822/2021 (Section 8 of Article 37) grants universities the authorization to deliver continuing education courses through micro-credentials or micro-modules. The decree complements the Organic Law 2/2023 of the University System by embedding lifelong learning as the core function of the universities.

Other Anglophone countries

These efforts across Europe mirror similar developments in other parts of the world:

Australia: Australia is actively utilizing digital credentials to meet the diverse needs of learners and employers, particularly in higher education, vocational education, and industry. By closely aligning micro-credential knowledge and skills with industry demands, these credentials aim to empower learners in acquiring additional skills.

Canada: British Columbia has pioneered a digital education credential framework across its public post-secondary education system, paving the way for a more flexible and responsive approach to skills development, required to thrive in the future economy and workforce.

New Zealand: Micro-credentials are being offered by various institutions and organizations, including higher education institutions, private training establishments (PTEs), employers, and professional bodies, reflecting a collaborative effort to enhance learning opportunities.

Common challenges—and key related questions policymakers are attempting to answer to address them

High level analysis of developments in these seven countries highlights three common challenges experienced by many countries as they move toward implementation of policies promoting and enabling the use of digital education credentials and LERs.

Common challenge #1: Absence of employers as stakeholders in conversations

Many countries’ strategy documents and guidelines on digital education credentials and LERs emphasize lifelong learning opportunities within higher education and vocational education and training settings. However, they often don’t fully consider the role of some key stakeholders, like employers, who play a pivotal role in bridging the gap between formal education/training and the evolving demands for skills across both societies and labor markets. Research from the Aspen Institute on Employer Engagement in Learning and Employment Records underscores the importance of involving employers in the design and development phases. Neglecting such early engagement may present challenges in bringing employers to the table once people seek to utilize newly acquired credentials as they move from learning to earning.

Key related questions policymakers are asking:

  • How to foster stronger collaboration with employers to ensure the relevance and effectiveness of digital education credential policies and projects?
  • How to address challenges that arise when employers have not been engaged at early stages of the development of digital education credential policies and projects?

Common challenge #2: Who pays for digital credentials and LERs?

Research from the OECD shows that public funding typically provides primary support in the initial or pilot stages of many digital credential efforts, often in the form of subsidies. As such initiatives scale, however, a blended mix of funding sources may need to be developed. Where learners are expected to bear related costs, in whole or in part, the economic value of such credentials may need to be very clear. The Finnish tradition of offering education either free of charge or at a nominal cost diminishes the appeal of fee-based micro-credentials for many learners, especially when their recognition in the labor market is not yet established. In countries such as Australia and Canada (Ontario), the government initially provided funding to cover the development and delivery expenses of micro-credentials. It is anticipated that supplementary financial backing will need to come from private sources, most likely through tuition fees. In Spain, where the micro-credential pilot is funded by the EU, learners are expected to contribute a portion of the expenses. Separate mechanisms are available to support individuals pursuing lifelong learning opportunities, which could include micro-credential programs. In Australia and Canada (Ontario), student grants and loan assistance are available to individuals participating in the funded micro-credential programs.

Key related questions policymakers are asking:

  • How should funding sources and mechanisms change as digital credential initiatives move from pilot stages to implementation at scale?
  • How can programs of study linked to digital credentials qualify for support under existing student grant and loan assistance programs?

Common challenge #3: Navigating legal bottlenecks

Changes to existing laws and regulations may be required in order to integrate micro-credentials in regional and national frameworks or systems initiated by national authorities or institutions. Countries such as Slovenia and Slovakia are grappling with necessary changes required in legal acts and decrees to support lifelong learning initiatives that integrate the use of digital credentials. In Slovenia, stakeholders are advocating for legislative changes to establish a fully functional regulatory system for micro-credentials. Slovakia is navigating the complexities of drafting legislation to differentiate between various types of micro-credentials and integrate them into existing education programs. As highlighted in a recent OECD report, while legal changes may introduce a solid basis for the integration of micro-credentials, higher education institutions require further guidance for implementation.

Key related questions policymakers are asking:

  • What strategies can countries employ to identify and implement the legal and regulatory changes needed to support the use of digital credentials?

Moving forward

Many countries are adopting the use of digital education credentials and learning and employment records (LERs) as part of larger processes to offer new opportunities to address skills shortages and advance lifelong learning. Along the way, nations such as Finland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have faced many common challenges, including employer engagement, funding uncertainties, and legal complexities. As is typically the case when introducing most any innovation, the devil is in the details. Moving forward, as more countries explore similar initiatives, and expand them, the documenting and sharing of related experiences across countries—the details—will become increasingly important. As conceptually appealing as the widespread adoption of digital educational credentials might be, however, they are no cure-all. The jury is still out on what impact such programs might have, and which groups will benefit— and which will not. Related research will be required in the coming years to answer such questions. The identification of key questions that policymakers are seeking to answer can provide a common framework to aid in the sharing of related knowledge and lessons across borders. More broadly, however, emerging experiences from the adoption of digital credential initiatives raise a larger, perhaps even fundamental provocation: If indeed digital education credentials are one answer to some of the deeper, systemic issues in the education and employment sectors, are we asking the right questions?