Title: NQF online tool
Author: Cedefop
Catalogue number TI-BG-24-001-EN-Q
ISBN: 978-92-896-3707-7
ISSN: 2811-9770
DOI: 10.2801/977504
Cite as: Cedefop (2023). NQF online tool. https://cedefop.europa.eu/en/tools/nqfs-online-tool
Contact: For more information on qualifications or if you would like to give us feedback on the NQF online tool, contact the Qualifications team.

The NQF online tool

The NQF online tool presents the evolution of qualifications frameworks in Europe since 2018. Qualifications frameworks promote transparency and comparability of qualifications, as well as mobility among European education and training systems. They can also impact broader education and lifelong learning policies, such as those on recognition and validation of prior learning. By offering information on qualifications through databases and on certificates, diplomas and supplements, countries are extending the frameworks’ outreach to stakeholders and the wider public at national and international levels.

National qualifications frameworks (NQFs) classify qualifications by level, based on learning outcomes. This classification reflects the content and profile of qualifications, i.e. what the holder of a certificate or diploma is expected to know, understand, and be able to do. The learning outcomes approach also enhances openness among education and training subsystems, making people’s vertical and horizontal progression easier.

The European qualifications framework for lifelong learning (EQF) has been the main catalyst for the development of NQFs in Europe, including qualifications from all education levels and sectors. A total of 41 countries committed to the EQF are developing or implementing NQFs: the 27 Member States, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, Moldova, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine. The development of NQFs in Europe also reflects the Bologna Process, while the EQF Recommendation confirms the compatibility between the EQF and the Framework  of qualifications for the European higher education area (QF-EHEA). All countries implementing the EQF are participating in this process.

How Cedefop supports EQF and NQF implementation

Cedefop’s work on qualifications frameworks dates back to 2003. At the time, the Centre worked mainly on the EQF’s conceptual development. Since 2009, Cedefop has carried out conceptual and technical work, and has developed and published: 

Stages of NQF development and implementation 

The following six stages describe the development and implementation of of national qualifications frameworks: 

(a) explorative stage;
(b) design stage;
(c) adoption stage; 
(d) activating stage; 
(e) operational stage; 
(f) review stage.

1. Explorative stage

The explorative (orientation) stage is characterized by initial discussions on policy challenges and the possible ways to address these. This stage can take several different forms. Countries may have systematically identified clear problems (for example a lack of transparency of qualifications and/or the need for reforming qualification systems) where a qualification framework is seen as a relevant solution (“problems seeking solutions”). In many cases, however, the mere existence of qualifications frameworks in other countries or at regional level influence national policies (“solutions seeking problems”). This latter is illustrated by early European developments where the introduction of the EQF acted as a catalyst for national developments. The same logic may be observed outside Europe where the existence of donor related programs may influence national decisions. The balancing of these somewhat opposing influences will influence this initial explorative stage and the extent to which frameworks are embedded in and owned by national stakeholders. A possible (but so far not frequently observed) outcome of this stage is a decision to not develop a qualification framework.

Stage indicators:

  • The role of qualifications frameworks in general is understood;
  • International practice and experience on qualifications frameworks has been considered;
  • Identification of/agreement on policy challenges and policy objectives, including consultations of main stakeholders;
  • Analysis of anticipated benefits (Ex Ante Assessment);
  • Clarification of the strengths and weaknesses of the NQF instrument in the national context;
  • Clarification of the strengths/weakness of NQFs relative to other instruments in the national context;
  • Coalition of stakeholders established.

2. Design stage

At this stage, countries negotiate objectives and design the architecture of the framework, in some cases supported by testing of solutions. The design stage involves the negotiation and design of governance structures, directly influencing the selection of stakeholders and the way these are to be involved. A critical part of this stage is the elaboration of learning outcome- based level descriptors. While normally being inspired by already existing approaches, most NQFs adapt descriptors to national contexts and needs. This elaboration influences the NQF in two important ways: vertically by defining the number of levels and the relationship between these; horizontally by defining the relationship between the key domains of knowledge, skills and competence. The design stage, for the first time, brings together involved stakeholders in a systematic way; triggering dialogue and potentially paving the way for longer term commitment. A design phase leaning too much towards direct ‘policy copying’, failing to adopt the framework to the national context, may weaken the role to be played by the NQF in national policies.

Stage indicators:

  • Formal working group or equivalent is established;
  • Agreement on the stakeholders to be involved in development and implementation and how these will contribute in governing the NQF;
  • Rationale/purpose, scope and objectives of the NQF have been agreed;
  • Involvement of international experts/donor funded projects if applicable;
  • Technical and conceptual work linked to the development of level descriptors and how this influences the relationship (vertically and horizontally) between types and levels of qualifications;
  • Awareness raising to ensure buy-in and commitment of key relevant stakeholders;
  • Possible testing of NQF design in restricted areas.

3. Adoption stage

At this stage countries officially establish or formally adopt a NQF. Formal adoption means different things in different countries, reflecting the respective national, political and legislative context and culture. It can range from the introduction of specific NQF acts or government decisions to amendments of existing laws and regulations or stakeholder agreements. The NQF can be the focus or part of the law that is e.g. addressing the establishment of an executive body, or the reform of qualifications. While formats vary across countries, formal adoption is generally a prerequisite for releasing funding and for triggering necessary technical and human resources. This stage in some cases marks a shift from limited project-based work towards more permanent arrangements.

Stage indicators:

  • NQF policy has been officially established/formally adopted (by NQF act, government decision, stakeholder agreement, etc.);
  • Roles and responsibilities between different stakeholders have been formally agreed and defined in legal acts or other documents;
  • Some clarity regarding financial and human resources has been reached,
  • An implementation strategy has been adopted (including a roadmap, capacity building needs, financing, etc.);

4. Activation stage

The activation stage, also to be referred to as a preparatory operational stage, is characterised by the consolidation of governance and the concrete building up of administrative and technical capacity and expertise. Experience shows that this phase requires time and that not all capacities will be available at the same time. During this stage we see the gradual but distinct shift from an internal focus (on the design and adoption of the framework) to an external focus where end users of different categories are addressed. During this stage the practical interaction of the NQF with the existing qualification system(s) and qualifications is determined.

Stage indicators:

  • Implementation structures in place (stable and agreed governance structures, day-to-day administrative capacities in place, predictable financing);
  • Main working methods and instruments being put in place (databases, communication strategies, quality assurance arrangements, by-laws and administrative regulations);
  • End-users are being made aware of the existence and the services of the NQF;
  • The NQF is a reference point for the use of learning outcomes and for the continuous revision and renewal of qualifications;
  • Criteria and procedures for allocation of qualifications to levels in place and allocation of qualifications continue;
  • The NQF is gradually playing a role in improving transparency and comparability of qualifications at national and international level;
  • The NQF is gradually supporting reform and renewal of education, training and qualifications systems at national level.

5. Operational stage

The operational stage is the stage of full implementation. The NQF adds value and contributes to meeting the objectives identified and negotiated during previous stages.

Stage indicators:

  • The NQF is a permanent and visible feature of the national education, training and qualifications system, improving transparency and comparability of qualifications by:
    • providing a map of, and reference to, all nationally recognised qualifications; this is the case for comprehensive frameworks (implemented in most European countries); including all levels and types of qualifications (VET, HE, general education, adult education and adult learning);
    • indicating NQF levels on certificates and diplomas and/or supplements, for example Europass in the European context;
    • qualifications registers or databases include all relevant information on the content and profile of single qualifications, including NQF/RQF level and learning outcomes, directly supporting end-users (learners, employees, employers) to progress in learning and work;
    • quality assurance mechanisms for the design, registration, renewal and the award of qualifications are in place;
    • providing a platform for cooperation of stakeholders across education, training and employment;
    • providing a reference point for development and review of standards and curricula;
    • providing a reference point for assessment and validation of non-formal and informal learning;
    • supporting teachers, trainers and guidance/counselling staff;
    • support recognition of qualifications for further learning and the labour market;
    • support cross-border mobility of students and workers.
  • The NQF is a permanent feature of the national education, training and qualifications systems, supporting reform and renewal by:
    • assuring that qualifications are fit for purpose;
    • promoting learning outcomes as a common language bridging institutions and stakeholders in education and employment;
    • including all types of qualifications, certificates and credentials; including private and international qualifications;
    • reducing the barriers to transfer and accumulation of learning outcomes; encouraging lifelong and life-wide learning;
    • encouraging a learning outcomes-based dialogue between stakeholders to facilitate the review and renewal of qualifications;
    • helping to structure information on skills supply and demand;
    • assisting guidance and career development;
    • helping to identify learning pathways;
    • facilitating certification of experiences gained at work.

6. Review stage

While qualifications frameworks need to be continuously monitored and evaluated, some countries organise periodical independent reviews. Although the review is running in parallel with the operations, it is proposed here as a separate stage as it has a separate focus from the implementation. During the review the added value to set objectives, the functionality of the framework, the commitment and involvement of stakeholders is evaluated. Recommendations from reviews frequently lead to bigger adaptations in the arrangements of NQFs. 

Reviews might consider the following aspects:

  • The  extent  to  which  the  NQF  stated  objectives  and  design  (structure) respond/
  • continue to respond to stakeholders/ country needs, policies and priorities, including in the context of wider policy goals (NQF relevance);
  • The extent to which other policies at national and regional levels support or undermine the NQF implementation, including consistency with other actors/ stakeholders interventions and/or the relevant external (RQF) norms, tools and initiatives (coherence);
  • The extent to which the NQF objectives have been achieved, including with regard to the use of learning outcomes, validation on non-formal and informal learning, referencing qualifications, quality assurance and recognition arrangements (effectiveness);
  • The extent to which the NQF has achieved the outputs and results within the intended timeframe and in relation to its supporting structures and other associated resources (pilot projects) (efficiency);
  • The extent to which the NQF is contributing to wider policy goals making a difference to individual citizens, learners and employers (impact);
  • The level of continuing commitment at national level to support the NQF implementation (future programme of work), including to secure institutional stability, appropriate funding and the necessary human resources (sustainability of the NQF).