The EU has adopted the so-called Lisbon strategy, which states that in 2010 ‘Europe must be the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world – with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion’.
The main tool
for achieving this goal is to ensure lifelong learning in all its aspects. This
means that citizens and employees must constantly be able to continue learning.
Seen from the point of view of VET (Vocational Education and Training), it is
important that skilled workers can continue their education later on in their
working lives and, for example, can attend the junior program or University (HE
or higher education).
For unskilled workers, it is important that they can continue learning and become skilled workers later in life. This requires that their skills can be recognized, both informal skills acquired in their work and the retraining they have participated in, so that they have an opportunity to pass an examination and to become a skilled worker.
The EQF for lifelong learning is a common European reference framework which enables European countries to compare and their different qualification systems and link them to one another. The history of the EQF has been one of rapid development. Thirteen years ago, only three countries had this system, namely Ireland, France and the UK – now over 140 countries are currently developing NQFs.
The main aim is to help learners and workers who wish to move between EU countries, change jobs or switch between educational institutions. It also helps to promote the lifelong learning philosophy by opening up pathways for the EU’s citizens, and more generally to make the education and training system more transparent and to promote access, transfer and progression into, within and between programmes of learning and lifelong learning.
The EQF works to provide the best possible levels of opportunity by helping promote the mobility of learners and employees between countries. The EQF can only work if NQFs are in place nationally. Apart from purposes of mobility (for a limited number of people), the objectives of NQFs are much broader and wider, namely to foster and enhance access to and participation in lifelong learning and use of qualifications for everyone, including those who are disadvantaged or affected by unemployment.
As a reference structure for qualifications, the NQF is in the first place a tool for classifying qualifications (described in terms of learning outcomes) transparently. To achieve its various objectives, it needs to be combined with a number of change processes.
An NQF introduces a common language for learning outcomes, levels, types of qualifications (awards), credit transfers etc. This language is used for developing qualification standards (occupation, education, assessment) and needs to be applied and elaborated on the general level down to the individual qualification. It also provides conceptual tools for planning and coordinating learning to make the system more coherent and unified. The common language for learning outcomes supports permeability between VET and HE. The use of levels clarifies where potential overlaps exist between qualifications. Mapping qualifications against the same set of descriptors makes it apparent where two (or more) qualifications lead to comparable learning outcomes and what learners might need to achieve in addition.
The adoption and implementation of comprehensive NQFs across Europe influences the relationship between (higher) education and training subsystems.
For both VET and HE outcomes-based qualifications are developed, even though differences exist in the benchmarks on which outcomes are formulated, namely occupational standards in VET qualifications and programs and curricula for HE qualifications. VET and HE qualifications focus on employability and the required knowledge, skills and competence, but in the case of HE they are understood in broader terms than just preparation for a specific profession or group of professions. Improving the links and bridges between levels and types of qualification, eliminating dead-ends and promoting vertical and horizontal progression is considered a key task of most of the new frameworks.
In many NQFs, qualifications are structured in units of assessment, with programs being structured accordingly in modules of learning, which can be combined and accumulated in different ways and used for credit transfer and progression. Unitization is claimed to provide opportunities for learners or end-users to exercise choice and increase their power in the learning market. Transfers between VET and HE can be made possible by unitization or modularization, making it easier to identify overlaps and to exempt learners from a module and its assessment. Modules or units also enable the delivery of pathways once the learner has obtained recognition and been exempted from certain units or modules.
The process of developing and implementing an NQF, and the institutional arrangements for maintaining and supporting it, are contexts in which different stakeholders in education and training may come together to identify mutual interests and coordinate their activities. Stakeholders include a range of actors, such as ministries, education and VET agencies, providers, employment services, employers, trades unions and civil society. This, it is claimed, enables standards to be updated and made more relevant and the learning system to become more coherent and demand-driven. The involvement of the private sector and social partners is of critical importance for the relevant qualifications. NQFs can provide a platform for social dialogue.
An NQF may be an instrument for regulating qualifications and thereby mandate reforms in education and training. Qualifications within a framework may have to meet the requirements for standards development (procedure, content and structure); delivery (provision of programs and rules for access, transfer and progression); and assessment and certification (including the recognition of non-formal/informal learning), all of which are aspects of quality assurance. The formal basis of the NQF thus varies according to the national context and the ‘policy-making culture’, as well as existing governance arrangements: it can consist of one (integrative) new law, creating new institutions, of a number of laws or of by-laws or orders making reference to the NQF and assigning new tasks to existing institutions. However, the legal basis alone is insufficient – reaching an agreement between key stakeholders on how to implement the framework after adoption is crucial. The most important criterion for deciding whether an NQF has reached the operational stage is whether there is an agreement on sharing responsibilities and roles between the different stakeholders.
A crucial issue to be addressed in implementing an NQF is to decide the roles and responsibilities involved in the management of the framework. An NQF needs national co-ordination, or in EU terminology national coordination point’. In fact, there is a great variety of solutions for this in European countries. While the majority of these ‘coordination points’ are with institutions of the education system, some countries have chosen institutions which fall under the Ministry of Labour. Most of these institutions are well integrated into the national qualifications structures and, at the minimum, are able to support framework implementation at the technical and administrative levels.
One of the more important aspects of qualification frameworks is that they encourage and facilitate the validation of non-formal and informal learning. Informal learning is especially important because many unskilled and semi-skilled workers have a lot of qualifications that are not formal, but can be recognized and used as part of an adult VET.
In accordance with the principle of lifelong learning, it should be possible for older workers with no formal qualifications to enter the vocational training system and obtain qualifications, thereby improving their employment prospects and expanding the pool of skilled labour available for industry. Older workers often come with substantial practical experience (non-formal learning) from the sector in which they are now seeking a qualification, and in order to avoid repetitive learning and shorten the time spent in training, most EU countries have now implemented opportunities for the accreditation of prior learning (APL) as part of their VET systems. As well as practical experience, APL also takes into account theoretical learning achieved in other contexts, such as other courses or educational programmes (e.g. evening classes).
In Denmark, older workers may apply to have their skills assessed in order to determine to what extent they already possess the knowledge, skills and competences necessary to obtain a qualification. This process, known as realkompetencevurdering (‘‘assessment of real competences’’), takes place at a vocational school and may last up to two weeks. During this period, the worker undergoes a series of theoretical and practical tests, at the end of which the school issues an assessment of what the worker already knows, understands and can do, and what elements are missing before a full qualification can be obtained. This assessment also indicates what theoretical learning and practical training he or she must undertake to complete the programme. Depending on the nature of the experience, the time required to obtain the qualification may be shortened substantially. As many older workers have families and other obligations, they may also be given financial compensation during their time in training on top of the going apprenticeship stipends to enable them to complete the programme without endangering the welfare of themselves and their dependents.
For ECVET standards go to: ECVET toolkit