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EPALE Interview: Marcella Milana on the European approach to Individual Learning Accounts and Micro Credentials

The Council Recommendations on Individual Learning Accounts and Micro-Credentials sit within a well-established strategy for learning and skills.

Marcella Milana

In June 2022, the EU Council adopted recommendations on Individual Learning Accounts and on Micro-Credentials. These two intiatives have been explicitly linked together, as they seek to boost learning opportunities and empower the adult population with the necessary skills to face the transitions. 

What is the political and social framework around the Council recommendations on Individual Learning Accounts and Micro Credentials?

The Council Recommendations on Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs) and Micro Credentials (MCs) were approved under the French Presidency of the EU Council, after the European Commission's initial proposal. This proposal comes after a long process, along which their implications had been identified and tested through a feasibility study, at least for ILAs. Their adequacy to answer the challenges that, while long-lasting, the COVID-19 pandemic made apparent was also tested.

However, to understand the political and social framework in which these recommendations took place we need to take a step back to at least a decade ago, when Europe was suffering from the 2008 global financial crisis. It suffices to recall that during the first trimester of 2019, EU GDP was on a steep decline and employment rates started to decrease after a few years of upward trends, albeit with significant variations among Member States.

If you follow closely European policy developments, you would easily notice how education policies have undergone rethinking, together with the first European responses to the effects of the crisis (the decade-long strategy Europe 2020) or the creation of a new macro-economic instrument (the European Semester). This took place through a revision of the strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training. A first-ever, measurable European objective with regard to the adult population was created - i.e. that, by 2020, 15% of adults participate in learning in all Member States. Despite all this, at the turn of the decade (2016), only 7 countries of the EU-28 had met this goal, with the average sitting below 11%.

In this context, sector policies came to life. In 2011 the EU approved the European Agenda for Adult Learning, whose goals were to give visibility to adult learning, but also to reinforce its link to the European and the national levels. This was made possible thanks to the creation of a network of national representatives for the Agenda implementation, as well as of a working group on lifelong learning – among those that saw the light to support the strategic framework for European cooperation in the field of education and training.

At the same time, the development of competences saw a dedicated European policy, with the approval of both the Upskilling Pathways (2016) and the promotion of the New Skills Agenda for Europe (2016). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that with the European Pillar of Social Rights to guarantee equal opportunities and access to the labour market, came a new measurable objective for the adult population: that 60% of all adults be enrolled every year in training activities by 2030.

The COVID-19 pandemic represented a new shock to the European political and social system, with a significant impact on employment levels as well as on participation in lifelong learning. It also highlighted, among many other things, the need to upskill the population and in particular to equip men and women with digital skills: these include the ability to use the internet, new information and communication technologies (digital literacy), but also the capacity to access, analyse, build and assess messages across different media (media literacy).

In this political and social context, the direction was twofold. On the one hand, a dedicated EU policy was implemented, with the EU Council approving the new European Agenda for Adult Learning in 2021; on the other hand, new instruments to support lifelong learning were created thanks to the massive resources of the Recovery and Resilience Facility.

What kind of needs do they seek to answer?

ILAs and MCs seek to answer several and overlapping needs, related to the improvement of competences of the adult population as well as to their employability.

The main barriers for adults to actively participate in lifelong learning activities are known, and can be broken down into three categories. First and foremost, we see “situational” barriers, that are due to life conditions such as the lack of material and financial resources, and the lack of time to dedicate to learning activities. Secondly, there are “dispositional” barriers, which relate to the general attitude of adults to consider themselves as successful individuals if they choose to engage in learning activities. Lastly, there are “institutional” barriers, which include the lack of an adequate offer to meet learning needs and expectations, as well as the presence of practices and/or procedures that prevent participation. Both ILAs and MCs aim to break down these barriers.

ILAs seek, first and foremost, to overcome one of the most important situational barriers: the lack of financial resources to increase lifelong learning participation. But it doesn’t end here. In many EU Member States, public resources – both national and European funds – are already available to support adult learning (for instance, the European Social Fund). But oftentimes these resources are given to companies rather than to citizens. Let’s think, for instance, of interprofessional funds in Italy, where companies’ tax money goes to support sectoral training plans. This means that businesses get to decide who, among the employees, will benefit from training and what kind of training they will receive. This creates institutional barriers for many.

Through ILAs, learners would choose where and how to direct resources and therefore choose what kind of learning will be held into account for their own personal and professional development. In principle, this should have a positive impact on the motivation to learn and would, in theory, overcome some of the dispositional barriers.

The goals of MCs are different. MCs record short learning experiences and should make adult learning pathways more flexible and modular. In this case, the goal is to overcome another of the main situational barriers to learning, i.e. the lack of time. Consider this: part of the increase in skillsets and competences, even professional ones, is due to long and time-consuming education and training paths – for instance, higher education. For adults this can be problematic, as it demands an often difficult work-life-study balance. Having the chance to participate in short-timed – yet validated – learning experiences not only would facilitate this balance but also further motivate adults to dedicate their time to targeted activities that better respond to their own learning needs and overcome dispositional and institutional barriers.

Are there any risks in the implementation of these recommendations?

While recognising that the recommendations respond to fundamental needs and, in principle, help overcome at least partially the main barriers to learning in adults, there certainly exist risks in their implementation.

When it comes to ILAs, despite being a new instrument at the European level, just as much as it is new for Italy, similar tools have been around for over 20 years in several European countries (for example, in the UK). In light of past experiences, implementation risks relate chiefly to the possibility of frauds and ill-informed use of allocated resources. The extent to which this risk will be countered will depend on how the resources will be assigned and spent by citizens. An additional risk is that MCs will constitute another institutional barrier, as practices and procedures for their efficient use might discourage use or benefit certain categories more than others, since ILAs will be available for the whole adult population.

When it comes to MCs, the risks are even more worrisome. First and foremost, it is necessary that the learning experiences they validate are recognised by training institutions, employers, etc., to make sure that they can effectively be spent on learning paths or on the labour market. And this is not at all granted. It demands strong synergies between different entities, on top of a shared vision. Moreover, over-qualification already permeates lots of sectors and workplaces; because of this, many adults that carry previous certifications will not see real benefits in terms, for instance, of salary increase or professional development (if employed) or access to the labour market (if they are job-seekers).

Moreover, we see the risk of fragmentation of knowledge in small, often inadequate, portions and experiences: these fragments are often not adequate or effective to bring a real growth process in terms of competences and skills both in their professional life as well as in citizenship experience.

Marcella Milana is Associate professor of general and social education at the Department of Human Sciences, and since 2019, Honorary professor of adult education at the University of Nottingham, School of Education (United Kingdom). She has lived, worked and carried out research in North America (United States), Latin America (Argentina, Brazil) and Europe (Denmark, Italy). An expert in adult education and lifelong learning, her research interests focus on education policies and governance - at local, national, regional and global levels, and in a comparative perspective.

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