High time to make all learning in society visible

Around 50 participants from 10 countries attended the Nova Nordic’s first digital multiplier event. The aim was to discuss a methodology for comparing and analysing National Qualifications Frameworks (NQFs) – and the key question: Should non-formal learning/qualifications be included in National Qualifications Frameworks and be possible to acquire through validation?

Deputy Director at the Swedish National Agency for Higher Vocational Education (MYH), Christer Bergqvist, welcomed participants by addressing the importance of common mobility tools throughout Europe for both learners and workers in terms of lifelong learning as well as re-and up-skilling. Christer pointed out that everyone’s support and shared knowledge during the seminar is paramount for the NOVA-project to succeed.  

Project leader Anna Kahlson (MYH) introduced the project team and presented the agenda for the webinar. Anna talked about the aim of the NOVA-project and the comparative study. Finally, she posed a rhetorical question to the audience:  If countries take different approaches to their NQFs, does that affect mobility and how? 

First time for today’s theme  

Koen Nomden, Team Leader for transparency tools at the European Commission, pointed out that the relationship between NQFs and validation arrangements had been discussed before in other contexts, but this is the first time with the specific focus on non-formal learning and qualifications, and links with NQFs and validation arrangements. 

This might sound somewhat surprising as most of our learning takes place in non-formal and informal contexts. It is important to make these skills visible, based on the principle of learning outcomes as we do for qualifications within formal learning.  

Koen got quite an interest from the audience when he discussed the new initiatives on Europass and micro-credentials. Europass now includes a personal e-portfolio, where one’s achievements, skills and qualifications can be recorded. It also includes improved CV and cover letter tools as well as presenting tailor-made learning and employment opportunities. Micro-credentials are proof of learning outcomes, acquired following a short learning experience. A micro-credential can be part of a full qualification, but also stand on its own, and they are important to make shorter learning periods visible and given “formal” value.  

Is the party too crowded or too dull? 

According to Ernesto Villalba, Project manager at CEDEFOP, it is possible to connect and compare learning in different contexts (formal, non-formal and informal learning). The key is to define learning in terms of “learning outcomes” and map them into a national qualification system or framework (NQF). Ernesto compared an NQF to a “bridge” and the EQF to a “lighthouse”.  

Ernesto posed some critical questions regarding the inclusion of qualifications in the NQFs: 

  • Who determines the levelling criteria and assures quality? 
  • What is the value if too many qualifications are included?  
  • How do the end users navigate if too many qualifications are included? 

Connected to these questions he saw some challenges; qualifications are currencies and have a value only if they are trusted, so can we protect and strengthen trust, quality, and relevance – when opening the NQF’s to all types of learning / qualifications? More specifically, what are the criteria for inclusion or exclusion and how can they be transparent and understandable? 

He also addressed coherence of qualifications and wondered how similar or different can they be. And if validation is a path to acquire a qualification, how many different paths can we accept to let a qualification be included in the NQF? 

Credential framework – instead of qualifications framework 

Expert Michael Graham from the European Training Foundation works with supporting countries neighbouring the EU to reform their education and qualifications systems and as part of that monitoring NQF progress in these countries. The number of NQFs around the world (ca. 150) has not increased the last couple of years, but countries have increased the pace of implementation and more NQFs are becoming operational. 

Michael also pointed out the importance of making NQFs trustworthy and transparent. It’s not that common to include non-formal qualifications in NQFs around the world, however, he underlined that it is a national matter to define the NQF and whether to include non-formal qualifications or not.  

In addition, Michael introduced the idea that we should look at NQFs as credential frameworks instead of qualifications frameworks. The core is to look at non-formal learning and how non-formal qualifications are developed and incorporated in NQFs. In connection to this we can look at validation arrangements as a means for learners to acquire qualifications. 

The definition of non-formal qualifications differs between countries which leads to an understanding of why qualifications themselves can also differ. Michael gave a piece of advice: to be able to make a comparative analysis, you need to create a common understanding of the purpose of NQFs and what is considered a qualification in relation to the different NQFs.  

Hopes and fears 

The participants were divided into smaller groups to discuss two principal questions: 

  1. What is the gain of including non-formal learning/qualifications in NQFs, and making sure that there are validation processes for this type of learning?  
  2. What are we risking by not including non-formal learning/qualifications in our NQFs? 

A participant from Austria explained about their “challenges, fears and hopes” linked with mapping non-formal qualifications to the Austrian NQF. They have manged to create a rigorous procedure and have experienced a gain for all: policymakers, employers, individuals and of course the VET sector. Another participant, from Sweden, could see that validation developments in the country are driving the interest of the Swedish NQF.  

Ernesto Villalba, who earlier talked about regulating the number of qualifications in NQFs, stated that we on the other hand can’t put up too many barriers for an inclusive NQF. Because then employers and individuals will start using and accepting other certificates as valid. They will not care if it is in the NQF, and we might end up with parallel systems. 

NQFs are an option – not a requirement 

In another breakout room, the discussion focused on quality assurance as an issue of trust. You need a transparent quality procedure, and transparency enhances trust.  

A participant from Finland noted that there are other ways of making learning visible, not only through NQFs. The discussion that followed focused on finding balance, not creating too high or too low barriers for levelling qualifications. According to Koen Nomden we should look at NQFs as a possibility. Some want to link their qualifications to NQFs and for other qualifications it is not necessary. It is an option. 

Next step – and the next one 

Fjóla Lárusdóttir (ETSC) and Anni Karttunen (Globedu), from the project team, shortly told the participants about the project’s next steps, emphasising that the project views NQFs and validation as two sides of the same coin, aiming at the same impact.

Developing a broader understanding of the different country approaches and procedures for including non-formal learning/qualifications in NQFs is of course a prerequisite for the Nova project but will also be an added value in the longer run since there is little to no existing data today. 

The upcoming comparative analysis and report will contain policy recommendations for necessary future developments. Later, the recommendations will be accompanied with good practices to contribute to capacity building and to support those developing qualifications and/or validation procedures.  

Closing the event, Anna emphasised the question of quality in the process of developing and linking qualifications to the NQFs for legitimacy and trust, and at the same time not complicating the levelling procedures. 
Thanks to all participants! To be continued…