The Death of Degrees? A Turning Point in the History of Skills and Certification as Degrees Wane and Skills Wax

Never has there been so much momentum or excitement around the digital recognition of skills and competencies as today. The positive and increasing focus on lifelong learning – instead of batch loaded degrees that feel obsolete shortly after graduation – is a widely recognized, if understated, result of increasingly rapid technological change. As opposed to thousand year old academic institutions, traditions and unions dictating semestered curriculum, open source networks and multinational companies are delivering personalized content based on labour market information that attempts to prepare learners for constantly evolving occupations and competencies. With degrees exacerbating inequality and even creating inequity, the world seems poised to replace paper higher education credentials with digital forms of skills recognition as the ultimate measure of human capital. Educational institutions are defending their value beyond skills and brick-and-mortar place-based learning. Yet simultaneously they are being forced to move online in the face of a pandemic, to learn and apply over a summer the age old pegagical rule that personalized hybrid teaching is always superior. This is the beginning of a conversation about badges and skills, credentials and technology. Perceiving the need to build a consensus around the digital recognition of skills while reinforcing the trust of accredited education providers, the authors of this paper created the International Council on Badges and Credentials (ICoBC).

Why skills over degrees?

Despite human capital being widely recognised as most countries’ and companies’ most valuable asset, skills gaps appear to be growing. Talent supplies appear inversely related to digital transformation. Recruitment based on degrees, poor recognition and communication of skills and insufficient mobility of talent are amongst the leading reasons for these gaps.

Examining each of these in turn paints a persuasive picture in favor of a greater focus on skills. First, employers currently rely on degrees to hire more efficiently. They rely on the reputation of post-secondaries as a proxy for the quality of the talent and reliability of their skills. Yet because access to higher education is both determined by – and largely dictates – socioeconomic status, degrees not only mask the underlying skills and therefore are counterproductive as a proxy, but they also exacerbate socioeconomic inequality. Degrees ensure those with access to higher education continue to hire those with the same background but are a blunt and often distorting means to recognise skills or competencies.

Second, teachers and learners struggle to effectively recognize and communicate the skills that should be at the core of their education. Students leaving a philosophy class on rhetoric can’t explain on their resume or in an interview that they learned communication, logic and negotiation. Similarly they struggle to apply these concepts to other real-world professions.

Third, because it is difficult to compare the meaning of credentials across educational institutions, industries, or international boundaries, individuals, employers and governments struggle to maximize the portability and location of skills. Two organisations struggling to address this challenge for some of the world’s most disadvantaged populations, refugees, are illustrative: In their words, “Talent Beyond Boundaries is the first organisation in the world to focus on labour mobility as a complementary solution to humanitarian resettlement.” This “skills-based approach to transform refugee lives” matches skilled refugees to economic visas (as opposed to refugees claims) that favour or select for their skills. Talent Beyond Boundaries’ collaborator, World Education Services, “evaluates and advocates for the recognition of international education qualifications.” In essence, WES helps the taxi driver newcomer with a PhD get the skills behind the PhD recognised so that she can apply them in her new country of residence.

Focusing much more granularly on an individual’s skills is both more fair and more efficient. Instead of the university they did or didn’t attend and how the union and trade politics of their countries of origin and residence have impacted recognition of this institutions relatively generic credentials, employers and focus on what value their background will add to a position. While the software to assess, recognise, represent and even hire based on skills exists, degrees feature far more prominently in human resource information systems algorithms.

Badges, labour market information and a skills revolution

Compounding the missed opportunity, Covid-19 has highlighted and increased the use of near-real-time labour market information with skills-level granularity (see a compilation of recent LMI dashboards here: Yet few immigration, education or workforce development systems, let alone small-to-medium-size-businesses, rely on LMI sufficiently.

A recent partnership between leading badging and LMI companies illustrates where the market is heading. Concentric Sky and Emsi are connecting “skill-based microcredentials with real-time labour market insights”. Structured skills definitions linked from external frameworks and connected to labour market statistics aren’t usually hot topics. But with the US federal government, Chamber of Commerce, the European Commission and many top corporations focused on skills-based hiring and training, the potential social and economic impacts of these wonkish standards could be massive.

The technological infrastructure of open badges, interoperable learner records, real-time labour market information and skills ontologies is mature and widespread. The EU, US, UN, World Bank and many more of the world’s most powerful organizations are aligned on the importance of skills. The world is poised for the skills revolution.

Yet there are too few ties across these initiatives and connecting these organisations and their leading practices. The International Council on Badges and Credentials hopes to build a consensus amongst these organisations and initiatives around the technologies and norms that will allow us to collaboratively and efficiently realise the social benefits of a greater focus on skills.

Written for OEB20 by Jake Hirsch-Allen, Armin Hopp, Simone Ravaioli and Rolf Reinhardt, International Council on Badges and Credentials (ICoBC)

One Response

  1. Clara Hirsch

    Very interesting article. I fully agree with the concept of skills as compared to Professional credentials.
    Have you been following the controversy of some of of the smaller schools in Canada where they guarantee getting into a good university. Blythe School along Avenue Road was mentioned.
    Shows you the value of some of these degrees. (Expensive but not valid)


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