International Developments
Overview

International developments are an important building block in a 21st century learn-and-work ecosystem. So many issues affect workforce development systems—individually and as a global group—that none can now function effectively in isolation. These issues include:  

  • Impacts on learn-and-work ecosystems due to war, pandemics, climate change, sociopolitical upheavals, immigration, worker shortages, recessions, equity and cultural differences, and advances in technology. Such factors make it difficult to provide needed education and training programs, enable close articulation with employers, and assess and recognize prior learning. 
  • Lack of a commonly used language to understand credentialing and employability.
  • Lack of alliances, partnerships, and networks to facilitate collaboration and information-sharing.
  • Inconsistent use of standards and quality assurance mechanisms. When companies hire workers from multiple nations, they need to be able to identify and trust the learning inherent in workers’ credentials.  
  • Inadequate career navigation systems to help individuals determine what education and career paths to pursue. 
  • Lack of interoperable data systems and standards that could help improve policy and practice.

“Higher education has … an economic and social status … unprecedented in modern history. Technological changes and associated developments in the economy and labour markets have pushed the demand for high-skilled workers and professionals to ever-higher levels. Higher education has become the most important route for a country’s human capital development and an individual’s upward social mobility.”

“To address the growing needs of a diverse population, some countries have . . . adapted their tertiary-level programmes to ensure more learning flexibility to suit a wide range of students’ skills and learning aptitudes. This includes building more pathways between upper secondary and tertiary programmes, including those with a vocational orientation, and expanding the types of programmes available to first-time tertiary students: short-cycle tertiary programmes, bachelor’s programmes or long first degrees at master’s level. Flexible entrance criteria can support lifelong learning and second-chance programmes can offer new opportunities to older students who might have dropped out of the education system or for those who wish to develop new skills. Providing a range of educational options adapted to the needs and ambitions of young adults also ensures a smoother transition from education to work.”

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that tertiary attainment [higher education] has increased strongly in recent decades. The average share of 25- to 34-year-olds with a tertiary qualification increased from 27 percent in 2000 to 48 percent in 2021 across OECD countries. On average, tertiary education is now the most common attainment level among 25- to 34-year-olds and will soon be the most common among all working-age adults across the OECD. The increase in tertiary attainment was especially strong among women. Women now make up a clear majority of young adults with a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree, at 57 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds compared to 43 percent for their male peers.

Enrollment in higher education globally is projected to reach 332 million by 2030—an increase of 56 percent, or 120 million students—from 2015. Likewise, the number of internationally mobile students is projected to reach 6.9 million by 2030—an increase of 51 percent, or 2.3 million students, from 2015.  Study portals made this forecast based on enrollment trends of the previous 15 years. It acknowledged, however, that the next 15 years will likely be dramatically different from the previous years due to a range of major trends (e.g., labor market shifts due to automation, skills mismatches, stricter immigration policies, budget pressures from declines in public funding, capacity imbalances):

Many entities and groups are working to raise awareness of these issues; improve information-sharing and international collaboration; and conduct research and offer recommendations for policy and institutional change. Examples include:  

  • The OECD: An intergovernmental organization (38 member countries) that provides a platform through which countries share data analysis and best practices with one another. The OECD also engages in voluntary standards setting. It focuses on international surveys and assessments such as PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment (measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges); survey of adult skills; and international survey of teachers. The OECD works to harmonize a broad collection of international data, issue publications on education, and engage closely with education ministries across the world to conduct analyses of data policy and peer learning. 
  • The European Commission (EC): The EC adopted a proposal for a European approach to micro-credits for lifelong learning and employability in December 2021. The proposal recommended that member states: (1) apply a common EU definition, standards, and basic principles for the design and issuance of a micro-credit, including its portability; (2) develop an ecosystem for microcredentials; and (3) exploit the potential of microcredentials to support lifelong learning and employability. The goal is to help microcredentials to be developed, used, and benchmarked in a coherent manner by member states, stakeholders, and various providers (from education and training institutions to private companies) across different sectors, domains, and borders. The proposal was subsequently adopted, together with a proposal for Individual Learning Accounts, which can support the development, use, and uptake of microcredentials. The microcredential and alternative credential providers include those outside higher education—business firms, professional bodies, training firms, and vocational education institutions. 
  • UNESCO: Has played a role in defining microcredentials as typically focused on a specific set of learning outcomes in a narrow field of learning and achieved over a shorter period of time. Microcredentials are offered by commercial entities, private providers, and professional bodies, traditional education and training providers, community organizations and other entities. While many microcredentials represent the outcomes of more traditional learning experiences, others verify learning acquired elsewhere, such as in the workplace, through volunteering, or through personal interests. Microcredentials are often promoted as an efficient way to upskill workers throughout their careers. A microcredential: (1) is a record of focused learning achievement verifying what the learner knows, understands or can do; (2) includes assessment based on clearly defined standards and is awarded by a trusted provider; (3) has stand-alone value and may also contribute to or complement other microcredentials or traditional credentials, including through recognition of prior learning; and (4) meets the standards required by relevant quality assurance.
  • American National Standards Institute (ANSI): As coordinator of the U.S. voluntary standardization system, and as U.S. representative to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC, via the U.S. National Committee), ANSI develops education programs and resources that raise awareness of the importance of standards and conformity assessment to students, academia, and the public. It also provides engagement opportunities for the next generation of standardization participants. These initiatives bring together partners from the standards and conformity assessment community, and support implementation of the education-related aspects of the United States Standards Strategy (USSS). The USSS guides how the U.S. develops standards and participates in the international standards-setting process. 

These examples highlight the growing global interest in microcredentials, alternative credentials, and non-degree credentials. Outside the U.S., policy developments concerning these credentials are occurring, especially on the national level, through national commissions, governmental funding, and changes to Qualifications Frameworks. Such frameworks guide who may be approved to be a credential provider in a nation, and also define the levels/types of credentials that are approved by governmental policy.

In the U.S., with its highly decentralized learn-and-work ecosystem, developments in microcredentials  have occurred on the federal, state, and institutional levels. Federal workforce development policies have fueled changes, particularly in areas such as career and technical education, registered apprenticeship, consideration of short-term Pell, workforce funding assistance, etc. Interest in short-term and non-degree credentials as tools for achieving public policy objectives was high in the U.S. even prior to COVID-19. In the wake of the pandemic and the mass unemployment accompanying it, interest intensified. There is bipartisan support in Congress for expanding Pell grant eligibility to non-degree, short-term training programs. Two major federal grant programs intended to provide relief from COVID-19 in 2020—the Department of Education’s Education Stabilization Fund and the Department of Labor’s Strengthening Community Colleges Training Grants—explicitly noted the potential role of non-degree programs in enabling rapid economic recovery.  

Despite these developments, the U.S. trails many nations in work on non-degree credentials. Many national and multinational efforts—in Europe, Asia-Pacific, Canada, Africa, Australia—are underway to identify and promote best practices related to credentialing and skill development.

Several takeaways have been identified: 

  • Many nations are more advanced than the U.S. in addressing the policy issues associated with non-degree credentialing. This is true whether the credentials are related to students’ initial education pathways or to continuous (lifelong) learning processes linked to workforce needs.
  • There is noteworthy effort in Europe. A 2020 report to the European Commission identified an urgent need to expand the number of available and accessible short-term programs. The fall 2020 European Commission’s Communication on the European Education Area featured a commitment to work toward a European approach to microcredentials. This approach was also included in the European Skills Agenda (July 2022), which will likely be used to implement the European Commission’s Digital Education Action Plan.  
  • There is growing interest in non-degree credentials among employers. In recent years, some of the largest global corporations—including Google, Apple, Starbucks, Humana, and IBM—have stopped requiring specific test scores or degrees from applicants seeking certain positions. These policies are being applied in some cases on a worldwide basis, bringing significant change to recruitment and human resource management practices in some parts of the world. New technologies for processing and evaluating candidates have the potential to amplify the role of non-degree credentials (e.g., by weeding out candidates who lack specific credentials or combinations of credentials) and to replace credentials with competency assessments. At the same time, platforms are emerging to provide students, employers, and universities with micro-internships that can result in microcredentials, potentially transforming access to work-based learning. 
  • Postsecondary education and training providers have growing interest in non-degree credentials. U.S. community colleges are increasingly embedding certifications into their curricula and awarding sub-baccalaureate credentials incrementally as individuals complete their requirements. This can help individuals earn several non-degree credentials concurrently while working toward a degree. Similar developments are occurring in universities and among nontraditional training providers.
  • Europeans are also being offered new opportunities to earn non-degree credentials while working toward degrees. Several leading institutions are collaborating to create an entirely new virtual university based on microcredentials, the European Council of Innovative Universities. Interest in work-based microcredentials in STEM occupations is also growing, with trade associations and labor unions in both Europe and the U.S. investing in the apprenticeship model to train skilled technical workers.
  • Researchers and policymakers in other nations appear to focus efforts initially on their research universities and micro-credentialing at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In contrast, professional and trade associations seem to play a comparatively outsized role in the provision of non-degree credentials in the U.S., where the focus has been at the undergraduate level. 
  • The importance of platforms—using technology to link education providers with companies and student needs—and to verify learning via blockchain (learning passports/wallets) are major concerns of the research and policy community globally.
  • Scholars in most nations appear to be receiving funds for work in this area from their national ministries. This is not the case for U.S. researchers, given the nation’s decentralized system. 
Relation to Ecosystem

Learn-and-work ecosystems are transforming globally. Many nations share common issues that are fueling this transformation; and they share common stakeholders (e.g., learners, policymakers, credential providers, quality assurance entities, employers, researchers). Nations benefit from global information-sharing and collaborative actions on policies and programs.

References

Executive summary | Education at a Glance 2022 : OECD Indicators | OECD iLibrary (oecd-ilibrary.org)

Choudaha, R. (January 2018).  Envisioning pathways to 2030: Megatrends shaping the future of global higher education and international student mobility.  Studyportals

Van Damme, D. (2022), “Do higher education students acquire the skills that matter?”, in Van Damme, D. and D. Zahner (eds.), Does Higher Education Teach Students to Think Critically?, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/a44c9bad-en.

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