Skip to main content

The emergence of alternative credentials

With digitalisation and online delivery reducing the cost of provision, the demand for alternative credentials is growing. A new working paper explores the role of alternative credentials in the labour market and their relationship with more formal higher education qualifications. Providers and governing bodies may wish to consider whether they see alternative credentials as an important part of their future strategy.

At a time when higher education providers are having to deliver the majority of courses online, a working paper published by the Organisation for Economic and Cooperative and Development (OECD) considers alternative credentials and the use of online learning.


The term “alternative credentials” is relatively new. There has “yet to develop a shared and common definition.” OECD proposes: “credentials that are not recognised as standalone formal educational qualifications by relevant national education authorities.”

Why look at alternative credentials?

A growing interest in alternative credentials reflects rising demand for the upskilling and reskilling of the labour force and a sharp reduction in the unit cost of delivery due to digitalisation. Consequently, through targeted provision and online delivery, alternative credentials could offer an effective and effective method of meeting skill needs.


While alternative credentials can be offered at all levels of education, OECD focuses on the provision “at the post-secondary or tertiary education level.” Ie. higher education.

Types of alternative credentials

Alternative credentials cover the following:

  1. Certificates: (1) academic - awarded by education providers; and (2) professional/industrial - awarded by professional bodies, industries or product suppliers
  2. Digital badges: “digital pictograms or logos that can be share across the web to show the accomplishment of certain skills and knowledge.”

Activities under (1) or (2) may be classified as “micro-credentials”. Definitions of micro-credentials vary across OECD countries, with, for example, in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), an emerging definition being a “sub-unit of a credential or credential that confer a minimum of 5 ECTS (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System)

Characteristics of alternative credentials

Six characteristics assist in understanding differences between alternative credentials:

  1. Delivery modes
  2. Duration
  3. Assessment processes
  4. Areas of focus
  5. Capacity to be embedded with or cumulate into larger credentials
  6. Characteristics of providers

Main content providers

There are substantial economies of scale in creating a shared platform for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). HE providers often develop courses with education technology companies, and offer courses in partnership with learning platforms (eg. Coursera, edX, FutureLearn).

Large companies, particularly technology companies (eg. Cisco, Google, Microsoft) also offer training programmes and associated assessments for the public.

Content providers’ motivations and benefits

Surveys of higher education providers find a variety of motivations, including:

  1. increasing institutional visibility
  2. providing flexible learning opportunities and exploring innovate pedagogy
  3. as a supplementary source of income
  4. opportunity to better serve their constituencies

The role and importance of generating revenue or reducing costs appears to depend on the type of programme. Many are offered at low or no cost; others with higher fees.

Learner profiles

Often relatively well-educated males, within the core working age group (25-54).


Almost three-quarters of MOOCs are offered in English.

Learners’ motivations and benefits

Most learners pursue alternative credentials for work-related purposes. When compared to formal higher education programmes the lower participation cost, shorter duration of learning and greater flexibility are important. In addition, some learners are attracted to the possibility of obtaining credentials from highly selective providers, given they would be unlikely to obtain a place on the provider’s conventional programmes.

Employers’ view

Alternative credentials do not substitute for formal HE qualifications. Employers’ unfamiliarity means they have a limited signaling value in terms of knowledge and skills.


At the HE level, alternative credentials typically serve as a complement to prior education and learning. Labour market impact is limited by employers’ unfamiliarity, a lack of standardisation and often the absence of a validation process. Providers’ motivation may not be financial, but some derive considerable revenue from alternative credentials.

Join the conversation

We would love to hear your views on how this may affect governance at your institution, for example, are alternative credentials as an important part of your future strategy? Share and connect online in our two governance groups on Advance HE Connect

Keep up to date – Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter