A Qualifications Framework is an instrument for the development, classification and recognition of skills, knowledge and competencies along a continuum of agreed levels. It is a way of structuring existing and new qualifications, which are defined by learning outcomes, i.e. clear statements of what the learner must know or be able to do whether learned in a classroom, on-the-job, or less formally. The Qualifications Framework indicates the comparability of different qualifications and how one can progress from one level to another.
National qualifications framework means an instrument for the classification of qualifications according to a set of criteria for specified levels of learning achieved, which aims to integrate and coordinate national qualifications subsystems and improve the transparency, access, progression and quality of qualifications in relation to the labour market and civil society.
The distinction between a qualifications ‘framework’ and a qualifications ‘system’ is important. A qualifications ‘system’ is broader, including all activities that result in the recognition of learning, such as the means of developing and operationalizing policy on qualifications, along with institutional arrangements, quality assurance, assessment and awarding processes, etc.
The value of an NQF lies in its potential to contribute to policy goals such as lifelong learning, recognition of skills, or improving the quality of education and training. Therefore its design should relate to the goals which it is intended to support and to the context in which it will operate. The most effective approach to building an NQF is to start with clear policy aims, rather than with a set idea about the particular characteristics it should have.
Recommendation of the European Parliament and the Council on the establishment of the European Qualifications Framework for lifelong learning (2008) (Recommendation) sets two milestones in the implementation of the EQF. First is to relate their national qualifications systems to the EQF by 2010 and second to adopt measures, so that, by 2012, all new qualification certificates, diplomas and Europass documents issued by the competent authorities contain a clear reference to the appropriate EQF level. Establishing an explicit national qualifications framework is not stated in the Recommendation as a necessary precondition for fulfilling of these milestones, but it is expected that at the end all European countries will reference their national qualifications framework to the EQF.
Given the fact that the Czech Republic does not have a comprehensive NQF (NQF for lifelong learning) yet, it referenced its present qualifications system and qualifications framework of the NSK to the EQF. Nevertheless, the members of the EQF Advisory Group including representatives from the members states, the European Commission, the Council of Europe, Cedefop and other European stakeholders, stressed during the presentation of the Czech referencing report and in its written comments the importance and necessity of development of the comprehensive NQF, so the Czech referencing to the EQF could be acceptable and comparable.
To develop an NQF is among short term deliverables in the Bruges Communiqué, which was signed by all European ministries for vocational education in December 2010.
The importance of the NQF existence
The existence of a comprehensive NQF cannot be overestimated. It gives clear signal to other European countries that there is agreement among stakeholders on basic principles in designing, defining, validation and levels of qualifications, that there is a common system of quality assurance, and that after extensive discussions among stakeholders a consensus was reached.
The Czech Republic did not yet decided whether it will develop a comprehensive NQF, but discussions and surveys conducted so far conclude that establishing an NQF could be an important mean for better coordination and communication among sectors of education and other stakeholders.
It requires inclusion of the broadest circle of experts and public possible, with representation of all relevant stakeholders. Only then can be the NQF used and respected by all sectors and social partners and the sense of ownership among them can develop.
A comprehensive NQF could be potentially a very useful and important instrument for further development in education, especially because of its learning outcomes approach and cooperation among educational sectors that the NQF promotes.
Many steps were already taken in the Czech Republic. There are adopted level descriptors of the NSK and there is a proposal for the Qualifications Framework for Tertiary Education. The development of the National Programme for Education (a framework for primary and secondary education) is currently being discussed. The next step could be the decision, whether and how to overarch existing and emerging sectoral frameworks. In some European states the creation of an NQF provides opportunity for education reforms (e.g. Poland), in others, where learning outcomes approach is well established, it only facilitates classification of existing qualifications (e.g. the Netherlands). Other, especially smaller countries such as Estonia or Austria use the EQF descriptors for overarching their sector sub-frameworks.
According to Ron Tuck, an expert on qualifications frameworks, three factors have been identified as inhibiting the implementation of NQFs. They are:
- over-complex approaches;
- over-ambitious visions;
- top down strategies.
None of these approaches to implementation take account of the realities in which qualifications actually work. A logical conclusion would appear to be that any future strategy especially for a developing country with limited resources should be based on simplicity, an incremental vision and encouraging local initiative.