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Gig qualifications for the gig economy: micro-credentials and the ‘hungry mile’

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Abstract

This paper argues that micro-credentials are gig credentials for the gig economy. Micro-credentials are short competency-based industry-aligned units of learning, while the gig economy comprises contingent work by individual ‘suppliers’. Both can be facilitated by (often the same) digital platforms, and both are underpinned by social relations of precariousness in the labour market and in society. They are mutually reinforcing and each has the potential to amplify the other. Rather than presenting new opportunities for social inclusion and access to education, they contribute to the privatisation of education by unbundling the curriculum and blurring the line between public and private provision in higher education. They accelerate the transfer of the costs of employment preparation, induction, and progression from governments and employers to individuals. Micro-credentials contribute to ‘disciplining’ higher education in two ways: first by building tighter links between higher education and workplace requirements (rather than whole occupations), and through ensuring universities are more ‘responsive’ to employer demands in a competitive market crowded with other types of providers. Instead of micro-credentials, progressive, democratic societies should seek to ensure that all members of society have access to a meaningful qualification that has value in the labour market and in society more broadly, and as a bridge to further education. This is a broader vision of education in which the purpose of education is to prepare individuals to live lives they have reason to value, and not just in the specifics required of particular jobs.
Gig qualifications for the gig economy:
micro-credentials and the hungry mile
Leesa Wheelahan
1
&Gavin Moodie
1
Accepted: 19 July 2021 /
#The Author(s) 2021
Abstract
This paper argues that micro-credentials are gig credentials for the gig economy. Micro-
credentials are short competency-based industry-aligned units of learning, while the gig
economy comprises contingent work by individual suppliers. Both can be facilitated by
(often the same) digital platforms, and both are underpinned by social relations of
precariousness in the labour market and in society. They are mutually reinforcing and
each has the potential to amplify the other. Rather than presenting new opportunities for
social inclusion and access to education, they contribute to the privatisation of education
by unbundling the curriculum and blurring the line between public and private provision
in higher education. They accelerate the transfer of the costs of employment preparation,
induction, and progression from governments and employers to individuals. Micro-
credentials contribute to disciplininghigher education in two ways: first by building
tighter links between higher education and workplace requirements (rather than whole
occupations), and through ensuring universities are more responsiveto employer
demands in a competitive market crowded with other types of providers. Instead of
micro-credentials, progressive, democratic societies should seek to ensure that all mem-
bers of society have access to a meaningful qualification that has value in the labour
market and in society more broadly, and as a bridge to further education. This is a broader
vision of education in which the purpose of education is to prepare individuals to live
lives they have reason to value, and not just in the specifics required of particular jobs.
Keywords Micro-credentials .Competency-based education .Labour market precarity .Human
capital theory .Skill-biased technological change .COVID-19
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-021-00742-3
*Leesa Wheelahan
Leesa.Wheelahan@utoronto.ca
Gavin Moodie
Gavin.Moodie@utoronto.ca
1
Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education,
University of Toronto, 252 Bloor Street West, Toronto, ON M5S 1V6, Canada
Published online: 3 August 2021
Higher Education (2022) 83:1279–1295
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
Introduction
The Hungry Milerefers to the line of men who walked along the wharves in search of work
in Australia in the late 1920s and early 1930s during the years of Great Depression. Known as
the bullsystem, men would assemble in groups, hoping to be selected for a daysworkbythe
foreman. Stevens (2020)explains:
foremen picked only the strongest and least troublesomemen to hire for the day.
Scenes of chaos and desperation were common as foremen casually tossed job tickets
into the air to be snatched up by the quickest men. Those who succeeded in gaining a
days work were then exposed to dangerous and backbreaking working conditions.
The gig economy takes a different form today, but it is still underpinned by the same ruthless
logic and brutality as the bull system. The gig economy includes contingent work underpinned
by digital platforms which mediate between individual suppliersof services, goods, or other
forms of labour and customers (Rani et al., 2021). It also includes other forms of contingent
work such as freelancing, consulting, labour hire, and other forms of casual work which are not
necessarily mediated through digital platforms (World Economic Forum [WEF], 2020).
Micro-credentials are the quintessential expression of human capital theory in higher educa-
tion, and their focus, form, and structure have significant potential to support the gig economy.
While definitions of micro-credentials are not fully settled, there is an emerging consensus that
they are short courses aligned with industry which are substantive enoughto be counted
towards a full qualification (Kato et al., 2020). In turn, micro-credentials may consist of
smaller units of learning, such as digital badges or digital certificates.
The purpose of this article is to outline the social and policy contexts in which micro-
credentials have emerged, explain their potential to underpin the gig economy, and to
problematise the taken for granted assumptions in policy that valorise them. Like many other
policy incursions into higher education based on human capital theory, micro-credentials are
presented as an antidote to problems of elitism in higher education. Opponents of micro-
credentials are cast as those who wish to maintain higher education as an ivory tower and
support elite structures of higher education, who are conservatives resistant to change and who
deny any role for higher education in supporting people to gain credentials they need for a
meaningful career. In contrast, proponents of micro-credentials argue that they are putatively
promoting social inclusion, self-realisation, personalisation, and student-centred learning,
while serving employers interests more closely (Wills & Xie, 2016). They are argued to have
the potential to democratise access to higher education by lowering the cost of its acquisition
(Willis III et al., 2016, p.31). They will revolutionise higher education, for the better (Cirlan &
Loukkola, 2020).
We argue that micro-credentials are gig credentials for the gig economy. Their potential to
underpin contingent, precarious work is greatest for those who are the most disadvantaged.
Micro-credentials do little to challenge the hierarchical structuring of higher education, other
than add an additional income stream for universities, including the most elite universities.
Those without the access to elite occupations provided by the elite universities must take on
more risk to second-guessthe requirements of the labour market so that they have the right
skills needed at the right time for the right job. Micro-credentials reflect the outsourcing and
cost-shifting of employersinternal professional development training to individuals who must
demonstrate that they are market readywithout needing muchor anyon-the-job training
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(Brown & Souto-Otero, 2018). They represent the deeper incursion of the discourse of
employability and competency-based education into higher education. The biggest problem
is that they feed the myth perpetuated by human capital theory that the right credential(or
qualification) at the right time will enable individuals to break throughsocial congestion in
the labour market and get a job aligned with their qualification at a level of skill commensurate
with the level of the qualification (Brown et al., 2020; Livingstone, 2019), or, maybe, just a
foot in the door to the labour market.
There are three main sections in this article. The first section provides the context for the
emergence of micro-credentials and the niche they are meant to fill. It demonstrates how
micro-credentials are congruent with human capital theory and its closely related cousin, skill-
biased technological change (Brown et al., 2020). This provides the setting for the second
section, which illustrates the link between micro-credentials, precarious employment, and the
gig economy. The third section considers problems raised by micro-credentials: they seek to
change supply of qualifications or credentials to solve a problem of demand for labour; they
reorient higher education from educational purposes to employment purposes; they seek to
divert students from substantial credentials with substantial value to micro-credentials with
micro value; they further seek to discipline universities; and they extend the privatisation and
marketisation of higher education.
The article would be too long to develop a social democratic alternative to the problems
raised by late capitalism that micro-credentials were developed to address, but in conclusion,
the paper refers to the authorsargument that all members of society should have access to
post-secondary qualifications which serve three roles though with different emphases and
orientations: to prepare graduates for work, to develop graduatescapacity to understand the
world and to participate in social and political life, and to undertake further education (see
Moodie et al., 2019; Wheelahan & Moodie, 2017). This is a broader and more inclusive vision
of education in which the purpose of education is to prepare individuals to live lives they have
reason to value (Nussbaum, 2000;Sen,1999) and not just in the specifics required of particular
jobs.
Dominant rationale for higher education: human capital
Human capital theory argues that education increases peoplesskills which increases their
productivity in work which in turn increases economic output (Schultz, 1961). There is a direct
linear connection between these elements at the level of the individual, group, enterprise,
industry sector, and nation (Becker, 1962,1964). Learning equals earning. That is, the direct
relation between increasing investment in education and increasing economic output posited
by human capital theory is said to increase graduatesincomes, firmsrevenues, sectors
economic contributions, and nationsgross domestic products. A persons position in society
and in the labour market is a result of their investment in education, and is fundamentally
meritocratic. This orthodoxy has underpinned education policy for more than four decades in
which the purpose of education is to meet the needs of the labour market and the economy. In
broad terms, the sum of qualifications or measures of educational attainment are taken as a
rough proxy for a countrys stock of human capital (Centre for Educational Research and
Innovation, 1998, p.16). The OECD (2020) produces Education at a Glance each year, which
reports on the stockof member countrieshuman capital as measured by years of education
and levels of attainment. As part of their broader critique of this approach, Brown and Souto-
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Otero (2018, p.2) explain that qualifications are posited by human capital theory as the
mechanism used by individuals to signal the potential of certain attributes that are difficult
to observe at the time of recruitment but are viewed as relevant for an individuals productive
capacity(see also Bills, 2016).
Initially, human capital theory was descriptive: it was used to explain economic gains from
expanding education; and it was also used to explain why individuals, companies, and
governments increased their spending on education. Human capital theory then also became
normative: advocates argued that investment in human capital should be increased to increase
economic rewards. Since the 2000s, human capital theory has become increasingly prescrip-
tive, with advocates arguing that postsecondary education should be increasingly concentrated
on and then restricted to programs thought to have most economic benefit. As we argue more
fully later, much of the advocacy for micro-credentials is a prescriptive form of human capital
theory, or more precisely, its variant skill-biased technological change.
Human capital theory was consistent with increasing average rates of return for longer
periods or higher levels of education until around the 1970s. Social mobility through education
was possible after the Second World War as a consequence of the growth of white collar jobs
in private and public sector bureaucracies in the 1960s (Brown et al., 2020, p.122), but recent
decades have been characterised by stagnating and declining rates of employment, pay, and
conditions under the new conditions of finance or market capitalism (Livingstone, 2019).
From about 2010, the average premium for education started to flatten; employment rates fell,
though they remained well above employment rates of those with less education; rates of
underemployment have increased (Brown et al., 2020); and there are increasing mismatches
between the field in which graduates are educated and the field in which they are employed
(World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting Group, 2015).
A persistent problem for human capital theory is that the relation between years or level of
education and economic gain observed on average belies marked disparities of rates of return
by age, gender, ethnicity, geography, field, and other factors (Lauder et al., 2018). That is, the
same investments in education do not result in the same kinds of outcomes for all. This is a
rationale for human capital theorys close relation and skills-biased technological change.
The family squabble between human capital and skill-biased technological change
Brown et al. (2020) compare and contrast orthodox human capital theory and skill-biased
technological change (SBTC) theory. Orthodox human capital theory posits that more educa-
tion leads to more skills which leads to higher productivity and from there to a more productive
nation with a higher gross domestic product (Becker, 1964). The supply of educated labour
elicits demand from the labour market and leads to higher wages as employers respond to the
higher productivity of more highly educated individuals (as explained by Brown et al., 2020,
p.124 in their critique). In contrast to human capital theory which posits that education drives
demand for skill, skill-biased technological change (SBTC) theory posits (broadly) that
technological change elicits demand for skilled (educated) labour, so the arrow of causation
between education and technology is reversed (Goldin & Katz, 2010; Machin, 2004). It also
takes field or subject into account, which accounts for higher returns for some areas than
others. SBTC focuses on the right kindof skills that are needed for higher productivity and as
a way of explaining the increasing inequality between high and low skilled workers.
In a very influential report, the World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting Group
(2015, p.1) argue that the problem is that education has failed to teach the rightskills defined
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first as employability skills, and now as twenty-first century skills which include critical
thinking, problem-solving, persistence, collaboration and curiosity. According to this ap-
proach, using years of educational attainment as the measure of human capital is too blunt
because the quality of education varies within and between countries, and measures such as the
OECDs Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Programme for the
International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) provide better insights because
all are measured in the same way (Gift & Wibbels, 2014). An extension of this argument about
the primacy of skills is that for individuals, the right signals are not credentials or qualifications
which indicate educational attainment, but specific employment skills which can be demon-
strated through holding the rightmicro-credentials.
Micro-credentials to the rescue
Micro-credentials are part of a group of alternative credentials(Kato et al., 2020), and while
they are defined in different ways, in most cases they are substantial enoughto count towards
a full qualification. Kato et al. (2020) report that many jurisdictions have micro-credentials of
about six months or similar duration. Micro-credentials may be made up of smaller compo-
nents such as digital badges and micro-courses and micro-certifications. No doubt, the
definition of micro-credentials will cohere over time as jurisdictions borrow policy by
incorporating them in their qualificationspolicies and frameworks.
Micro-credentials are mostly self-paced and associated with online learning, but they can
also be offered face-to-face, in hybrid or blended modes which include face-to-face, group, and
online components (Kato et al., 2020). Their development has been facilitated by the devel-
opment of digital platforms that can safely record, store, and transmit these micro-units of
learning between institutions (Keevy & Chakroun, 2019). The first use of these technologies
on a mass scale was for MOOCs (massive online open courses), and these platforms have
developed since then so that they can capture alllearning, including units of micro-learning
such as badges. Keevy (2018, p.26) says that digital technology is also expected to offer new
credentialing methods and systems that can capture, recognise and validate a broader range of
learning outcomes in the era of lifelong learning.
Micro-credentials are focused explicitly on the labour market. For example, the New
Zealand Qualifications Authority (n.d.) explains that:
A micro-credential certifies achievement of a coherent set of skills and knowledge; and
is specified by a statement of purpose, learning outcomes, and strong evidence of need
by industry, employers, iwi
1
and/or the community.
Think tanks and philanthropic trusts are promoting micro-credentials and are helping to drive
institutional change by embedding micro-credentials within different jurisdictions (Greene,
2019). There is a great deal of policy attention on micro-credentials by governments and
international government organisations. For example, the Australian government is moving
towards incorporating micro-credentials as a permanent part of the Australian Qualifications
Framework (Department of Education Skills and Employment, 2020), while the Government
1
Iwi refers to a people or nation in Aotearoa (New Zealand) Māori society. There are different iwi in Aotearoa
NZ. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iwi
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of Aotearoa New Zealand has already done so (New Zealand Qualifications Authority n.d.).
The Canadian provincial Government of Ontario (2020) is supporting the widespread imple-
mentation of micro-credentials, while several state governments in the USA are using micro-
credentials in their teacher development programs, and exploring how they can be incorpo-
rated in evaluation of teachers (Berry & Byrd, 2019). The OECD (Kato et al., 2020), UNESCO
(Chakroun & Keevy, 2018), and European Commission are working on micro-credentials,
with the European Union establishing a Common Microcredential Framework to enable the
recognition and portability of micro-credentials (Konings, 2019). UNESCO has a project to
develop World Reference Levelsto enable the recognition of all types of credentials,
including micro-credentials, digital badges, and other forms of micro-learning and is exploring
how this can be automated through digital platforms accessed by individuals, employers,
educational institutions, governments, and other interested parties (Chakroun & Keevy,
2018).
2
Work is proceeding in Continental Africa to achieve similar results (JET Education
Services, 2020).
This policy attention on micro-credentials has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic
which has accelerated their development as governments have sought to respond to massive
increases in unemployment as a consequence of quarantining measures, and universities (at
least in wealthy countries) have sought new markets to replace enrolments by international
students who cannot leave their country of origin. For example, the Australian government
introduced and funded a new under-graduate higher education certificateof six-months
duration as an explicit response to the COVID-19 pandemic (Commonwealth of Australia,
2020). The provincial Government of Ontario in Canada introduced considerable funding for
micro-credentials, also as an explicit response to COVID-19 (Government of Ontario, 2020).
Proselytisers for micro-credentials portray them as tools of democratisation where curric-
ulum is freed from restraints associated with universities, and accessed through private-for-
profit entities. For example, Willis III et al. say: With the proliferation of digitally-connected
learning tools, institutional control of educational curricula has been democratized with free or
low-cost tools like YouTube, Khan Academy, MOOCs, and many others(Willis III et al.,
2016, p.31).
A key argument for micro-credentials is that the fast pace of change in work means that
short, sharp episodes of learning just in time and just for now are needed to keep pace.
Individuals, it is argued, shouldnt have to go back to do a new credential when all they need to
do is to reskill in particular areas (Oliver, 2019). And such learning needs to be more tightly
integrated into what industry wants. For example, Oliver (2019, p.13) says that Micro-
credentials are a key opportunity for providers to achieve better integration with employers.
This takes for granted that this is what universities should be doing. Digital Promise is a US
organisation signed into law by President Bush in 2008, launched by President Obama in
2011, and funded by the US Department of Education and various large philanthropic trusts. It
explains that: Micro-credentials provide a pathway to personalizing and recognizing profes-
sional learning. They allow employers to verify the skills their employees demonstrate,
regardless of where and how they learned them(Digital Promise, 2020).
A further argument for micro-credentials is that they free individuals to choose what they
will learn, how, when, and in what ways. They will putatively provide disadvantaged students
with access to cheaper learning as they build towards a full credential and this can contribute to
widening access to hitherto excluded groups. Micro-credentials can respond to the changing
2
See: https://worldreferencelevels.org/
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needs of the workplace by allowing individuals to upskill when and how they need to, and (it
is claimed) probably for lower cost. Indeed, the language of empowerment, self-regulated
learning and learner autonomy, personalisation, intrinsic self-motivation, and self-realisation
are associated with micro-credentials in the same way as they were for MOOCs (see Wills &
Xie, 2016).
Micro-credentials are generally based on competencies (Digital Promise, 2020) and con-
sequently are also an incursion of this model of curriculum into higher education from
vocational education where it originated and where it dominates. The language of learning
outcomes, employability skills, graduate attributes, and now twenty-first century skills has
dominated higher education for some time as part of the requirement for universities to be
responsive to employersneeds and studentsvocational aspirations (Walker, 2016). However,
micro-credentials are more explicitly based on tightermodels of competencies which are
linked to skills required at work. Deng (2020) explains that competency-based models of
curriculum are derived from the field of human resource management, and are managerial
concepts rather than curricular concepts. The explicit purpose of competency-based curriculum
is to tie education directly to workplace requirements and roles. Micro-credentials are a vehicle
through which this is achieved.
SBTC theory is helping to drive the development of and legitimation of micro-credentials
based on the putative deficits of education in failing to provide individuals with the specific
knowledge and skills needed by the labour market, and because of its suspicion of the value of
qualifications. There is a direct line between higher technological skills and micro-credentials
which have been produced to help meet demand for those skills. Micro-credentials can
produce in-demandskills at the right time, result in more effective skills assessment and
recognition, and fill the gap between academic programmes and the skills required by the
labour market(Cirlan & Loukkola, 2020, p.15). Lauder et al. (2018, p.500) explain that for
proponents of SBTC, the notion of skill appears closer to an account of the relationship
between education and the economy than that of the credential. They explain that the new
databases have enabled SBTC theorists to operationalize elements of the unobserved skills that
they have been seeking(Lauder et al., 2018, p.500).
Investing in human capital as a safety net
As work has become more precarious, individuals must shoulder greater responsibility for risk
in the labour market. This is particularly the case for those in external labour markets, where
their occupational progression is not as clear as it is for those in regulated professions (such as
nursing or medicine), or as in internal labour markets characterised by internal progression
within firms (Yu, 2015). Those in external labour markets must second guessthe require-
ments of the labour market and build a skills profile that ensures that they can hit the ground
runningin commencing new jobs (Brown & Souto-Otero, 2018). Micro-credentials are one
way they can do this. For example, Burt and Gormley (2021) explain that the valueof
alternative credentials such as micro-credentials is that employers need to fill roles more
quickly [and] are unable to wait for certain skills to evolve their way into the workforce. Job
seekers need to be ready to quickly learn and document their proficiency with new skills and
abilities to remain relevant and essential.
The diminution of the welfare safety net over the last four decades of neoliberalism
(Harvey, 2007) means that education is the principal safety net, and individuals must make
sound investments, and if they dont, it is because of the decisions they have made. Brown
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et al. (2020, p.35) explain that neoliberalism sought to increase individual responsibility for the
creation of human capital as a way of encouraging market incentives for individual enter-
prise. They explain that the sole means by which individuals can improve their life chances is
by investing in their human capital, as the basis of their participation in the labour market. The
state no longer provides broader social insurance and welfare programs. Brown et al. (2020,
p.39) explain: This is human capital in the raw; without it, the chances of thriving in a
neoliberal society are remote. Students and workers are to stand naked in the market, save for
their credentials.
On-demand micro-credentials reflect the fragmentation of occupations and increase
precarity of the labour force. They reflect the skills discourse, and the need to have the right
skills at the right time. The cost is often borne by individuals seeking to break into or upgrade
their position in the labour market, or prove that they are indispensable. Micro-credentials
reflect employersoutsourcing of internal training and development to individuals. For
example, non-formal work-related learning in Australia fell by 12.4 percentage points from
2005 to 2016/17 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017). Training intensity also declined, from
a median of 28 hours in 2007 to 24 hours in 2017 (OECD, 2019a, p.19). Livingstone (2019)
found similar declines in non-formal work-related learning in his study of Canada. Employers
cut their investment in their employeestraining by around 40% over the last two decades in
Canada (Hall & Cotsman, 2015), the UK (Green et al., 2013), and the USA (Cleary & Van
Noy, 2014,p.1)
The gig economy: micro-credentials as a response to precariousness in the labour
market
The links between micro-credentials and the gig economy are still emerging, but are taking
more definite shape. Just as micro-credentials are broader than those mediated by learning
platforms, the gig economy doesnt refer just to Uber or food delivery apps although these are
possibly the most visible and their workers seem to work in the most difficult and precarious
conditions. The gig economy refers not only to platform work, but also to other forms of
contingent work that include freelancing, consulting, labour hire, and other forms of casual
work (WEF 2020). The gig economy is characterised by precariousness in employment, and
lack of access to pay and conditions associated with regulated jobs in the formal economy. The
International Labour Organization (ILO) (2019, p.6) reports that 61% of the worlds workforce
was in informal employment in 2016 who, by and large, also do not enjoy any social
protection. The informal economy is, of course, a much bigger phenomenon in low-income
countries, but its importance is rising in high-income countries as well. There are always
problems with and debates about definitions of the informal economy, so the notion of
precarious work is perhaps more helpful. For example, in discussing Australia, Stanford and
Pennington (2019) explain that the resurgence in precarious employment takes many forms,
including independent contracting, casual and temporary work, and on demand positions. In
2017, the percentage of Australians in the labour force who were in full-time paid work with
leave entitlements fell to just under 50%, for the first time (Carney & Standford, 2018, p.17).
Stanford and Pennington (2019, p. 22) refer to the gig economy more broadly as the
expansion of the on-demand economy and insecure work, which are the result of the
conjunction of macroeconomic, regulatory, and political developments (p.22). The changes
in the economy and in society are the result of the triumph of financial capitalism, the pursuit
of shareholder profit, and the decline of the welfare state (Standing, 2009; Therborn, 2012).
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Work has become more precarious as power has shifted from labour and unions, and as the
welfare safety net has been largely removed. Bourdieu (2001) argues that precarity has come
to be the doxa governing late capitalism. While different segments of society and of the
working class are affected in different ways by precariousness (Standing, 2011), nonetheless
all live in its shadow, including those in more traditional secureforms of work. Bourdieu
(2001, p. 29) explains we now have institutionalized precariousnessand that:
Thus has come into being an economic regime that is inseparable from a political
regime, a mode of production that entails a mode of domination based on the institution
of insecurity, domination through precariousness: a deregulated financial market fosters
a deregulated labour market and there the casualization of labor that cows workers into
submission.
In Australia, there is a term that refers to the casual cruelty that results from this domination
through precariousnessthe spill and fill. Wyborn and Vautin (2013) explain, in rather
neutral terms, that: A spill and fill is a restructuring process whereby a range of positions in a
workplace are made redundant and the employees filling those positions must reapply for the
smaller number of newly created positions.And these new positions may be at lower levels
with lower pay.
The growth of insecure work is not a consequence of technology, but technology does
facilitate how it is managed and supervised (Stanford & Pennington, 2019). According to the
World Economic Forum (2020), platform work and services are still a relatively small but fast
growing segment of the gig economy, facilitated in part by platforms. Stanford and Pennington
(2019, p.14emphasis in original) explain that the growing precarity of work, including in
digitally mediated on demand jobs reflects the evolution of social relationships and power
balances, more than technological innovation in its own right.
Platform learning has also facilitated the massive expansion of micro-credentials because of
its capacity to digitise, store, and share outcomes of small components of learning. But this is
far from a neutral technology. Rather, it is an educational response to increasing precarity in
the labour market. As Means (2018,p.326)explains:Platform learning harnesses the oper-
ating capabilities and logics of digital platforms such as Uber and Amazon to imagine
synergies between on-demand labor and on-demand learning, transforming living into learn-
ing, and learning into labor. He explains that these learning platforms imagine learning and
work futures [which are] reflective of the commercial and technocratic values and rationalities
immanent to Silicon Valley and corporate technology more broadly(Means, 2018,p.327).
However, the notion of platform learning goes beyond the specific programs offered by the
apps and the gig jobs that they are tied to. Rather, they reflect a shift in the relation between
education and work which has emerged as a consequence of the increasing precarity of work in
late capitalism. Means (2018, p327) explains that the concept of platform learning as a
speculative discourseinternalizes emergent conceptions of education and work within the
on-demand economy of late capitalism.Ranietal.(2021, p.23) explain that: Platforms are
redefining the relationship between formal education and access to work, as worker profiles,
ratings and reputation are vital for accessing work. And micro-credentials are one element of
building a reputation and demonstrating possession of specific skills.
As an illustration, the OECD (2019b, p. 111) explains that: Several large online platforms
that facilitate the hiring of freelancers also offer online skills tests, where freelancers can take
multiple-choice quizzes on various skills, across a variety of skills domains. Seek Limited
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(n.d.), which is a private for profit company listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, started as
an online version of print employment classifiedsand soon developed SEEK Learning
(2019), connecting job seekers with relevant, nationally recognised courses. Platform-
based work is not far from the Bullsystem where foremen had discretion over who to
choose to work for a day and to toss job tickets out to see who caught them. Micro-credentials
and the gig economy are mutually reinforcing and will grow in importance, with both
facilitated by platformssometimes the same platform which links the two. For example,
Rani et al. (2021, p.185) report that about 20 per cent of respondents on freelance platforms
reported that they had completed classes or trainingto improve their skills and/or enhance
their profiles and obtain certification that they had done so. They are also mutually reinforcing
because both are underpinned by social relations of precariousness.
Problematics of micro-credentials
Micro-credentials raise several problems: they seek to change the supply of educational
qualifications or credentials to solve a problem of demand for labour; they reorient higher
education from educational purposes to employment purposes; they seek to divert students
from substantial credentials with substantial value to micro-credentials with micro value; they
further seek to discipline universities; and they extend the privatisation and marketisation of
higher education.
Change education supply to solve a problem of demand
Micro-credentials are presented as a key way in which the skills problemand skills
mismatches can be addressed. But as Brown et al. (2020, p.133) explain the problem is not
skills, it is the availability of jobs: The fundamental problem is not that there is a shortage of
the relevant skills that employers demand but that there is a lack of good-quality jobs. The
problem that needs to be addressed is not labor scarcity but job scarcity.Over time, there has
been a shift from standard to non-standard forms of employment, and a decline of jobs in the
middle of the skills spectrum (OECD, 2015) leading to congestion in labour market
(Livingstone, 2019). Brown et al. (2020, p.124) say that there is a danger of:
defining economies and societies by dominant or emergent technologies or level of
scientific knowledge, whatever label is applied: industrial,”“information,”“knowl-
edge,or digitaleconomy. Although capitalism can change its spots, its still capital-
ismThe education system cannot compensate for market capitalism.
In a congested labour market and expanding higher education, qualifications are a necessary
defensive tool in the labour market rather than a differentiating factor for the majority of jobs
(Bills, 2016; Brown & Souto-Otero, 2018, p.2). Individuals must differentiate themselves
further. Micro-credentials are one way they can do this. This is not realisation of the self as
presented by progressive discourses which promise social inclusion, access, diversity, and
democratisation. Rather, it is the modern way in which individuals participate in, and compete
with each other in, the hungry mile.
Micro-credentials have the potential to contribute to the fragmentation of occupations as
employers are in a position to stipulate that applicants must have particular sets of skills related
1288 Higher Education (2022) 83:1279–1295
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to particular tasks, rather than whole qualifications that underpin occupations. This has
certainly been the experience in vocational education, where versions of micro-credentials
have existed for some time (as with skill setsin Australia) (Wheelahan, 2016).
Reorient education
Human capital theory reorients the ends of education from the development of knowledge to
the development of productive workers. Skill-biased technological change reorients the
curriculum of education from knowledge to skills, and from educational skills to job skills.
Micro-credentials greatly amplify both changes. They also greatly atomise and fragment skills
development. Not only are micro-credentials much smaller than standard credentials, they also
can be taken in any order and in any combination, or alone as self-contained credentials. This
makes all but impossible the development of sustained knowledge and skills, notions of
sequence or hierarchy, and thus of deep knowledge and skills (see Wheelahan & Moodie,
2021).
Micro-credentials further shape higher education as an instrument of microeconomic
change to serve the economy and a market society (Buckner, 2017). They achieve two goals
simultaneously: first, they help to discipline the curriculum in higher education so that it is
more explicitly focused on work (Muller & Young, 2014); and second, they help to discipline
higher education institutions so that they are more market oriented and responsive (Marginson,
2006). For example, the Australian Government Minister for Education, Dan Tehan (2020a)
explained in a speech that: The development of microcredentials will drive innovation and
provide an additional income stream for universities, while making them more efficient,
relevant to industry and responsive to the requirements of domestic students.Basedonthe
old adage, never let a good crisis go to waste,hesays:Our Government wants short courses
to be a permanent fixture of the Australian education system(Tehan, 2020b). It is clear that
the Australian government is funding micro-credentials during the pandemic to drive more
long-lasting change, which will embed them as a key component of higher education,
including in the Australian Qualifications Framework (Department of Education Skills and
Employment, 2020).
Divert students from substantial credentials with substantial value
to micro-credentials with micro-value
Unlike substantial educational credentials, micro-credentials do not seek to develop graduates
capacity to understand the world and to participate in social and political life. Their sole aim is
to improve employment outcomes. They are new and do not have a widely shared definition.
There is therefore not strong statistical evidence of micro-credentialsemployment outcomes,
but the limited evidence currently available suggests that micro-credentials do not have strong
employment outcomes and that they are certainly lower than for substantial credentials.
Bailey and Belfield (2017) analyse USA national, survey, and college-system-level datasets
to conclude that stackable credentials which include certificates of up to a years duration
show only weakly positive and inconsistent gains from these award combinations. Burns and
Bentz (2020, p. 3) analyse data from the USA 2012/14 Beginning Postsecondary Students
Longitudinal Study to find studentsemployment outcomes three years after ending their
study. Some 72% of students who completed a certificate of up to a years duration were
employed, which is markedly higher than 59% of students who did not complete a certificate.
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However, of those who were employed, there was no statistically significant difference in
median salary between certificate completers and non-completers.
Ositelu (2021, p. 13) report the results of regional focus groups of 48 adults from Atlanta,
GA, and Richmond, VA, to find that Many participants in the focus groups believe that their
program helped them to earn the certificate they needed to get a job and improve their skills.
However, it appears that their hopes dont match the reality of the outcomes they achieve.
Ositelu (2021, pp. 10-11) analysed data from the USA National Center for Education
Statistics2016 Adult Training and Education Survey to find that more than half of adults
with a short-term certificate of up to 15-week duration who were employed earned $30,000 or
less per year, which is below the national poverty line for a household of four. She found
further that the median yearly income for Black and Latino/Latina adults with a short-term
certificate is $10,000 to $20,000 less than the median yearly income of their white counterparts
who hold a credential of similar length.Some 41% of graduates with a short-term certificate
were unemployed and of those who were employed, 39% reported that their current job was
not related to their credential (Ositelu, 2021,pp.14-15).
Disciplining universities
Technologies like micro-credentials are said to be needed to disrupt universities because they
are seen to be unresponsive, slow to move, and lacking motivation. For example, Chakroun
and Keevy (2018 p.29) say that:
The fact that micro-credentials are more flexible and responsive make them very useful
in designing flexible pathways that appeal to employers, compared with traditional or
macro-credentials and their more static pathways which are often not well understood by
employers.
This deficit language about universities and other higher education institutions is not new,
particularly in their success or otherwise in embedding employability skills within curriculum
(see Cotronei-Baird, 2020). This is precisely the language that has been used in the vocational
education sector over the last 40 years to characterise vocational colleges (such as further
education colleges in England or TAFE in Australia). They have been cast as inefficient and
needing disciplining by the market, because they were said to teach outdated programs that
employers didnt want and students didnt need, leading to skills mismatches, and declines in
productivity because employers couldnt get graduates with the rightskills (Bjørnåvold &
Coles, 2007/8). The solutionin vocational education in countries such as Australia, the UK,
and South Africa was to impose competency-based training tightly in which units of learning
were aligned to workplace tasks and roles, leading to tick and flickof the minutely specified
learning outcomes in a teacher-proof curriculum (Allais, 2012).
This discipline is now being introduced into higher education, including universities. While
the mechanisms for control in higher education are not as overt as they are for vocational
education in most countries, nonetheless decades of neoliberal policies that have sought to
subordinate and align all education to the labour market have affected universities. Funding is
often a key mechanism to elicit compliance with a strong labour market focus. For example, in
Australia in 2020, the Minister for Education, Dan Tehan (2020c) increased the fees that
humanities students must pay by 113% because they putatively dontresultinstudentsgaining
good jobs. Students in the humanities n public universities will now pay more in fees than
1290 Higher Education (2022) 83:1279–1295
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those studying under-graduate programs like medicine, dentistry, or veterinary science
(Department of Education Skills and Employment, 2020, p.19). The Ontario government in
Canada is introducing performance-based funding in which 60% of the government grant to
colleges and universities will depend on performance against 10 metrics which focus on skill
and job outcomes, and economic and community impact (Ministry of Colleges and
Universities, 2020).
Privatisation and marketisation
Micro-credentials facilitate the blurring of the public/private divide in higher education and
contribute to the marketisation and creeping privatisation of public higher education through
privatising the provision of micro-credentials. For example, FutureLearn, a prominent provider
of micro-credentials, is jointly owned by the UK Open University (a public university) and
Seek Ltd.
3
FutureLearn boasts many partners including leading public universities, not-for-
profit entities, and for-profit entities.
4
Privatisation is occurring by enmeshing public universities in complex relationships with
private-for-profit companies in delivering education. Public universities have long delegated
ancillary services such as accommodation and extra curricula life to associated entities such as
colleges. But many if not most are now contracting out to private providers the provision of
core academic services such as library resources and learning management systems, and some
are contracting out the provision of preparatory programs, language support, and supplemen-
tary tutoring (Wekullo, 2017). The stakes become profit, and driving down costs to drive up
profit. This contributes to the commodification of learning and the unbundlingof curriculum
in the service of greater efficiency and profit (Ralston, 2020). As an illustration, for $969, it is
possible to undertake an online micro-credential in Customer Experience Management with
Salesforce Training, which includes training in a companys proprietary software, and receive
15 credits towards an MBA in Global Business at a university in London.
5
Gone are the days
where one could expect a company to train new recruits in their own proprietary software; in
many cases, recruits must pay for this training themselves and come ready to start work on day
one (Brown & Souto-Otero, 2018). Means (2018, p.326) explains that aspirations by the
Institute for the Futurebased in the Silicon Valley are that: Every interaction, every gig,
every book, every online module, and every micro-project is converted into edublocks, which
are the basis of micro-credentialsstored through blockchain technology.
The blurring of the distinction between public and private occurs by constituting a market
placeof public and private providers which offer credentials increasingly interchangeably
with each other, and this blurs distinctions between provider type. For example, in a foreword
to Inside Higher Eds special report on Alternative credentials and emerging pathways
between education and work,Lederman(2020, p.iii) explains:
3
See: https://www.futurelearn.com/info/blog/futurelearn-announces-seek-as-new-50-50-shareholders-alongside-
the-open-university.
4
See https://www.futurelearn.com/partners. Partners include Microsoft, and for $694, students can do a micro-
credential that includes Microsoft Azure, and undertake the Microsoft exam to achieve Microsoft certification.
See: https://www.futurelearn.com/microcredentials/microsoft-ai-track
5
See: https://www.futurelearn.com/microcredentials/customer-experience-success-salesforce
1291Higher Education (2022) 83:1279–1295
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The expansion of alternative credentials is helping to blur boundaries between credit-
bearing and noncredit programs, between colleges and noncollege providers, and
between higher education and posthigh school job training. Defined broadly, alterna-
tive credentials and the competency-based learning systems that undergird them will
change how many colleges operate, and warrant attention from faculty members and
college leaders.
The distinction between those who work in public and private institutions is also blurring. In
an illustrative example, Ralston (2020, p.3) reports that there is a revolving doorbetween
senior executives in online divisions in universities and third party vendors of online platforms
which underpin many micro-credentials.
Conclusion
The key argument in this paper is that micro-credentials are gig credentials for the gig
economy. Rather than presenting new opportunities for social inclusion and access to educa-
tion, they contribute to the privatisation of education by unbundling the curriculum and
blurring the line between public and private provision in higher education. Micro-credentials
can contribute to the fragmentation of occupations by undermining the coherence of qualifi-
cations and occupations (Wheelahan, 2016). Micro-credentials contribute to disciplining
higher education in two ways: first by building tighter links between higher education and
workplace requirements (rather than whole occupations), and,through ensuring universities are
more responsiveto employer demands in a competitive market crowded with other types of
providers.
Instead of micro-credentials, progressive, democratic societies should seek to ensure that all
members of society have access to a substantial qualification that has value in the labour
market and in society more broadly, and as a bridge to further education (Moodie et al., 2019;
Wheelahan & Moodie, 2017). This is a broader vision of education in which the purpose of
education is to prepare individuals to live lives they have reason to value (Nussbaum, 2000;
Sen, 1999), and not just in the specifics required of particular jobs. Living a life that one has
reason to value must have as part of its core, educational preparation for a career and
meaningful work, underpinned by an agential worker who has a stake in and contributes to
the evolution of their occupation (Winch, 2014), and who has a stake in and contributes to
society more broadly (Bernstein, 2000).
Acknowledgements We wish to thank the reviewers and the co-ordinating editor for their very helpful
comments which helped us to reorient and strengthen the paper.
Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which
permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give
appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and
indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's
Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included
in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or
exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy
of this licence, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.
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... Звернемо насамперед увагу на те, що у закордонній науковій літературі мікрокваліфікації переважно розглядаються у контексті зміни ринку праці, технологічних змін і потреб працівників адаптуватися до них, навчаючись на робочому місці [16; 25]. На поширення запиту на мікрокваліфікацій на ринку праці також вплинули такі явища, як цифровізація усіх аспектів життя в суспільстві [33], розгортання GIG-економіки та посилення запитів ринку праці на конкретній мікрокваліфікації [32]. Слід відзначити, що ...
... In the 1980s and 1990s, human capital theory became increasingly normative: advocates argued that investment in human capital should be increased to promote economic performance. Since the 2000s, human capital theory has become even more prescriptive, with advocates arguing that postsecondary education should emphasise, and then be restricted to, programs thought to have most economic benefit (Wheelahan and Moodie 2021). ...
Article
This article is published open access and so is available free from the publisher's web site. This article describes the process through which human capital theory came to dominate policy in post-compulsory education, to result in the fetishisation of skills. It relates skills policies to the contemporaneous development of policies on lifelong learning. The fetishisation of skills is related to methodological and normative individualism displacing an understanding that capacity and skill arise from and are developed by interdependent action. The current promotion of 21st century skills, genericism and trainability leads to the alienation of skills from the people who embody and exercise them and the social context which enables and gives value to peoples’ exercise of their skills. The article argues that this reification and fetishization of skills degrades education, work and social life.
... The drive might be evidenced by a formal decision and action by some authority like a government (which has not occurred on a coherent basis) or a response to a crisis in the existing model (which does not appear to currently exist) or a strong social influence or social influences for change (the emerging technologies are enablers rather than influencers). In this last category, Wheelahan and Moodie (2021b) have argued that the gig economy presents a strong influence for change. However, the impact of the gig economy is not uniform across all occupations or across all jurisdictions and it remains to be seen whether that impact will be strong enough to result in substantive change to the existing paradigm. ...
Preprint
Full-text available
The growing discussion on micro-credentials usually revolves around their advantages and benefits. This paper highlights the key problems of micro-credentials which may negatively impact on their take-up.
Chapter
In the context of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), the rapid advancement of technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics are disrupting the existing structures of labour markets and impacting the nature of work and employment at a much broader scale and faster pace than previously. What becomes of the future of work and employment, then, can be described to be a ‘race between education and technology’ (Goldin & Katz, 2008). Consequently, one of the greatest challenges for education systems in the 4IR will be to find a way to supply a stream of the right talents and skills amidst the fast-changing requirements of the labour market. Against this backdrop, Singapore has identified the concept of lifelong learning — as manifested through the SkillsFuture initiative — to underpin recent reforms in the nation’s higher education and skills development policy, in order to meet the constantly evolving skills needs for the future. By drawing on Singapore as an illustrative case study, this chapter seeks to draw out the key challenges, pertinent trends and developments in higher education and lifelong learning, to contribute to greater clarity in proposing the way forward in the actions for societies to take, so as to win in the race between education and technology.
Technical Report
Der Bericht umfasst eine Sammlung von 14 internationalen, als innovativ bezeichneten Hochschulkonzepten im Bereich der Lehre, Curriculum sowie Studierendenrekrutierung.
Article
To advance the employability agenda in higher education, we need new ideas for embedding career skills into university curricula and novel tools for articulating the capabilities of learners. Situated in the discipline of environmental science, the aim of this study was to examine employer perceptions of the skills needed for a career in the sector and the utility of micro-credentials in recognising and recruiting graduates. Through in-depth interviews with 22 environmental professionals in three Australian states/territories, we found that employers use multiple lines of evidence when recruiting for new positions and that alternative sources of information are highly valued in their decision-making. Questions about the utility of micro-credentials in this process centred around a case study in environmental science. While there was strong support and enthusiasm for the micro-credential and broad approach, employers needed further context about how micro-credentials can be used, and confidence in the rigour and standards applied. ARTICLE HISTORY
Book
Full-text available
Human capital theory, or the notion that there is a direct relationship between educational investment and individual and national prosperity, has dominated public policy on education and labor for the past fifty years. In The Death of Human Capital?, Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder, and Sin Yi Cheung argue that the human capital story is one of false promise: investing in learning isn’t the road to higher earnings and national prosperity. Rather than abandoning human capital theory, however, the authors redefine human capital in an age of smart machines.
Article
Full-text available
As the value of a university degree plummets, the popularity of the digital microcredential has soared. Similar to recent calls for the early adoption of Blockchain technology, the so-called ‘microcredentialing craze’ could be no more than a fad, marketing hype, or another case of ‘learning innovation theater.’ Alternatively, the introduction of these compact skills- and competency-based online certificate programs might augur the arrival of a legitimate successor to the four-year university diploma. The thesis of this article is that the craze for microcredentialing reflects (1) administrative urgency to unbundle higher education curricula and degree programs for greater efficiency and profitability and (2) a renascent movement among industry and higher education leaders to reorient the university curriculum towards vocational training.
Book
Full-text available
Bringing to bear a wealth of literature from curriculum theory, Didaktik, philosophy of education and teacher education, this book broadens and enriches the conversation initiated by Michael Young and his colleagues on ‘bringing knowledge back in’ (Young, 2007). Knowledge, Content, Curriculum and Didaktik is distinctive in providing a comprehensive and multifaceted analysis of the role of knowledge, and in particular curriculum content, in relation to curriculum policy, curriculum planning and classroom teaching. It makes a case for linking knowledge and content to the development of human powers or capabilities needed for the 21st century and unpacks the challenges for curriculum policy, curriculum planning and classroom teaching. The book discusses, among other issues: • Educational aims and theories of knowledge • School subjects and academic disciplines: differences and relationships • School subjects and theories of content • Understanding the content for teaching The book will be relevant for scholars, researchers, policy makers and curriculum developers who seek a more sophisticated, more balanced and philosophically better grounded understanding of the role of knowledge and content in education and curriculum.
Article
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The landscape of post-secondary education is changing with the emergence of new credentials that are engaging millions of learners. So-called “alternative credentials” – such as micro-credentials, digital badges and industry-recognised certificates – have expanded their scale considerably, as a consequence of a rising demand for upskilling and reskilling, as well as a sharp reduction in the unit cost of provision made possible by digitalisation. Higher education institutions, businesses and other institutions are actively offering alternative credentials that help learners acquire new skills, update their existing skills and signal the competencies they already have. Despite an increasing volume of these new credentials, great uncertainty persists. This working paper aims to assist policy makers across the OECD by defining terminologies, identifying the characteristics of these credentials, looking at providers and learners of these credentials, and examining how employers and governments perceive these credentials.
Article
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This report proposes some immediate steps to make micro-credentials work - or work better (agree definitions and standards, add value). It also proposes bigger steps in the near future to ensure education systems evolve to meet the needs of learners who wish to engage but are hampered by the demands of work, family responsibilities and finances. Enterprising nations are implementing strategies such as credit banks, lifelong learning accounts, and recognising prior learning and experience at scale. In the future of work, evidence of learning - newly acquired skills as well as those gained through experience - will be even more important. tiny.cc/agc
Article
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The development of employability skills is an important graduate outcome of most contemporary university degrees. Given the critical role of academics in teaching and assessing curriculum, they are held responsible for furthering the employability skills development of university graduates; yet little is known about the factors that hinder academics in integrating employability skills into the university curriculum. Based on the Theories of Action Framework, this research compared academics’ espoused understanding of employability skills and reported practice against their actual practices to identify the hindrances. Their understandings of employability skills and of their espoused practice were collected through interviews with academics and content analysis of curriculum documents. The data, drawn from direct observation of teaching and assessment practices and follow-up interviews, were analysed to investigate actual teaching and assessment practices. The findings indicate a disjuncture between espoused practice and actual practice. The disjuncture can be explained by the individual nature of teaching and assessment practice that is influenced by academic experience, position, and disciplinary boundaries. As such, academics face a number of competing challenges, constraints, and demands within the scope of their practice that impede the consistent and systematic integration of employability skills in the university curriculum.
Article
‘Employers know that they can hire worldwide now … so, there is limitless supply of people … who can do the job … . they’re all qualified, most of them are actually over-qualified … . I’m a wage slave basically, I don’t think we have very much social status … . we are replaceable workers … I mean, the employer holds all the cards really. We are salaried employees … no different from any other worker.’ (Owen, automation engineer 2017)(Respondent to CWKE interview with engineers) Post-secondary graduates and professional employees in particular are widely regarded as highly qualified strategic resources in advanced capitalist ‘knowledge economies.’ However, there is mounting evidence that these ‘knowledge workers’ are experiencing increasing underemployment as well as diminishing involvement in continuing learning and some decline in job satisfaction. Trends in these factors are documented primarily on the bases of a series of national surveys of the labour force in Canada between 1982 and 2016. Prospects for more critical attitudes to working conditions as well as shifts in theorising and policy-making regarding relations between employment reforms and educational reforms are considered.