More urgent. More crowded. More expensive. Also, more flexible. That, in a nutshell, is how higher education has changed around the world in the wake of the global financial crisis. Many have responded to government austerity cuts by seeking faster and more affordable options, targeted to deliver immediate jobs. Bite-sized credentials typically in narrow, occupational fields don’t count as formal degrees, but they’re cheaper and can produce a substantial salary boost.

Their popularity has exploded in the United States and about 11 per cent of American workers now have them, up from 2 per cent in 1980. Competency-based learning is a broad-based move toward giving students credit for what they can demonstrate they know, regardless of how much time they spend in class.

Such options could save students time and money. The government wants more flexibility that would bring into the system specialised providers that can offer targeted teaching even if they are not traditional colleges.