The professionally-certified student: a valuable phenomenon in higher education 

John Knott – Head of Global Academic Sales, PeopleCert 

“Is university worth it?” 

This was the opening salvo from the Economist magazine in an article from earlier this year,2023 headlined “Was your degree really worth it?”

While the writer asserts that the “facts” show how “financial returns to higher education remain extremely healthy”, doing a degree has become “riskier”; not least because public perception has changed about what was once a “no-brainer” education choice: quoting a poll from the Wall Street Journal, 56% of Americans “believe a degree is no longer worth the time and money spent on it”

Among the responses to this challenge mentioned in the article – e.g., students choosing subjects with a better financial return, universities reducing humanities courses and firms deciding to take on non-graduates – one growing trend in higher education is overlooked: universities that choose to embed professional training and qualifications within or alongside their degree courses.   



| The growth of “micro-credentials” in higher education 


While some universities have been doing this for years – the UK’s University of Westminster has offered PRINCE2 project management courses and certification for more than a decade – they were outliers. However, the numbers now show a distinct shift in higher education’s embrace of so-called “micro-credentials”.  

Universities signed up to PeopleCert’s Accredited Academic Partner Program – giving institutions access to our portfolio of business, IT and language qualifications along with course materials and resources for either self-paced, hybrid or virtual learning – has increased to over 100. This equates to 14,000 students obtaining professional certifications until the end of 2023 (a 49% increase on 2022).  

And this phenomenon is not limited to one geography: currently, universities in countries including the USA, Canada, UK, Poland, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Australia and Africa are buying into the concept of professional credentials for their students.  

So, why does this matter – both to universities and their students?  

| Bridging the knowledge gulf between education and work 


Outside of well-established professions (which have their own training programmes and accreditations to supplement degree studies), there has always been a gulf between what academia teaches and what the working world requires. The accelerated changes in technology and the new competencies employers need to remain competitive and transform their operations demands a different approach to skills development during students’ higher education.  

For example, while higher education prioritises theoretical knowledge over practical application, industry is looking for work-ready skills that go beyond just technical know-how – such as collaboration, critical thinking and adaptability.  

But, as our university partners are finding out, the yawning gap that existed traditionally between the two approaches can now be filled by professional learning, knowledge and certifications.                                                                                                                   

| The skills bonus for students – and reputation boon for universities 


What students gain from achieving certifications such as ITIL 4 (a globally-recognised service management framework)  and PRINCE2 is industry-focused skills and competencies that enhance their employability and long-term career prospects. Indeed, the job specifications for many roles stipulate such accreditations by name. For fresh graduates entering the economy, having these “badges” of excellence increases salary potential (by 20% in some cases) and gives them a competitive edge. 

For universities, offering these additional training and accreditation opportunities is good for their student recruitment, the post-university value they add in conjunction with awarding degrees and retaining their relevance to the wider economy. It can also mean an extra revenue stream, training professionals already in work in the community who need to improve their capabilities.   

In the UK, as already referenced, the University of Westminster has seen continued growth in its existing professional certifications and has added more. Dr Walaa Bakry, Director of Executive Education noted “strong growth in demand for PRINCE2” and for Managing Successful Programmes (MSP – PeopleCert’s programme management framework).  

| Enhancing student employability post-university 

Dr Bakry said: “We think professional qualifications in general give students an edge in the employment market. As well as helping to make them aware of the market’s expectations around their employability, obtaining a professional certification definitely makes a graduate’s CV stand out. Therefore, we incorporate professional certifications into the business school’s curriculum whenever there’s an opportunity, such as including PRINCE2 as part of our MSc Project Management course.” 

The evidence to support the prudence of this policy tends to come after students leave the university: Students who achieve these qualifications tend to be employed – or at least shortlisted – immediately after graduation… employers are likely to be more interested in students that have graduated from courses which either offer them professional certification or that have been professionally accredited,” Dr Bakry added.  


This heightened employability trend is happening elsewhere too. Since 2021, Texas A&M University (TAMU) in the USA has included ITIL 4 Foundation training and certification alongside its technology degree programme. Programme Co-ordinator, David Sweeney, said: “We’ve tracked the students that went through ITIL training and certification at TAMU since 2021 and – anecdotally – they’ve had better outcomes than those who didn’t take the ITIL path: gaining employment faster and internships more easily. 

“And this approach helps companies which, when recruiting, must plan continuing education such as ITIL for new entrants. Instead, we can save them time and money and deliver more valuable employees from day one.” 

Now, the university is thought to be the first to embed ITIL 4 learning directly in a new degree programme – Information Technology Service Management – to launch in 2024. For the first time anywhere in the world, this will enable undergraduates to achieve the ITIL 4 Managing Professional designation while obtaining a degree. 

As an increasing quantity of university students are finding the benefits of achieving professional certifications are not merely theoretical: they’re both practical and tangible in terms of getting hired and attracting higher pay.  

And the forward-thinking higher education institutions at the helm of this trend are demonstrating they know what employers and their newest employers need, which does their own undergraduate recruitment no harm at all.