Dismay in policy and scholarly discourse about what is called ‘over education’ and credential creep co-exists with dismay about skill mismatches and skill shortages. Credential creep is the outcome when employers demand ever-higher level qualifications for appointment to jobs lower in the job hierarchy, thus displacing hitherto existing opportunities for those without qualifications. Skill mismatches and skill shortages putatively arise when graduates’ qualifications do not equip them for the jobs that are available. So, educational institutions are blamed for both over- and under-educating prospective workers.
A recent variant is to blame educational institutions for not ensuring that graduates have ‘useful’ skills that employers ‘need’. These putative deficits in qualifications have led to questioning their value and purpose. In response, governments around the world have been quick to fund micro-credentials as the solution to these problems. Micro-credentials are short, mostly work-focused programs that are designed to ensure individuals have the right skills, just-in-time. They shift the focus from full qualifications to tightly focused work-related sets of skills, and in the process undermine the value and importance of qualifications and limit the purposes of education to providing narrow skills for specific jobs.
In this lecture, I will explore the different ways in which the role and purpose of qualifications in society are theorised, including human capital theory, institutionalist theories, and Weberian and Marxist credentialist theories. While all these theories offer important insights, they mostly suffer from the shared problematic assumption that the main purpose of qualifications is to prepare people for the labour market. In contrast, I will argue that qualifications have intrinsic value, educational value, use value, social value, and exchange value. In societies such as the UK, Australia, and Canada (the three systems with which I am most familiar with) mass and universal levels of participation in tertiary education and attainment of a qualification is a precondition for full participation in society as a citizen and a worker. Micro-credentials are at best a distraction, and at worst, a side-alley in which the most disadvantaged students will be diverted. The lecture will conclude by arguing that a broader conception of the purpose of qualifications is needed, one that supports human flourishing.