National qualifications frameworks (NQFs) help to make qualifications easier to understand and compare. They can also encourage countries to rethink and reform national policy and practice on education, training and lifelong learning.  

NQFs classify qualifications by level, based on learning outcomes - that is, what the holder of a certificate or diploma is expected to know, understand, and be able to do. This classification reflects the content and profile of qualifications. The learning outcomes approach also ensures that education and training subsystems are open to one another. Thus, it allows people to move more easily between education and training institutions and sectors.

The main catalyst for the development of comprehensive national qualification frameworks in Europe has been the European qualifications framework (EQF). All countries committed to the EQF are developing or implementing national frameworks mostly covering all levels and types of qualifications: the 27 EU Member States, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. 

Cedefop’s National qualifications frameworks (NQFs) online tool provides detailed and interactive information on national qualifications frameworks. 

The development of national qualifications frameworks in Europe also reflects the Bologna process and the agreement to implement qualifications frameworks in 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: 

Cedefop has organised various events allowing policy-makers and practitioners to compare practices and exchange experiences.
 

Overall progress in 2022

  • 38 countries are cooperating on the EQF implementation. 27 EU Member States, EFTA countries (Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland), EU candidate countries (Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey), and potential candidate countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo).
  • 36 countries have formally linked (‘referenced’) their national qualification systems or frameworks to the EQF: Albania, Austria, Belgium (Flanders and Wallonia), Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kosovo, Latvia, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Montenegro, the Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey. Before the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU, its qualifications frameworks were also referenced to the EQF.
  • Eight countries have updated their referencing reports: Belgium (fl), Estonia, France, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Malta and the Netherlands. Before the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU, UK-England and Northern Ireland, UK-Scotland and UK-Wales also presented updated referencing reports to the EQF.
  • 33 countries have started tagging their certificates and diplomas as well as qualifications in their databases with NQF and/or EQF levels. Progress has been more visible in VET than in general education. Some countries have set out to label with the NQF and EQF levels most of their new certificates and diplomas for NQF-registered qualifications (e.g. Denmark, Estonia, Malta, Poland and Slovenia).
  • 37 countries have officially established or formally adopted their national qualifications frameworks (NQFs).
  • 36 countries are working towards comprehensive NQFs covering all types and levels of qualification from formal education and training (VET, HE, general education); and increasingly opening towards non-regulated/private qualifications (e.g. Austria, Denmark, France, Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden).

European inventory of NQFs

 

Global inventory of NQFs and regional frameworks (RQFs)

 

The global dimension of qualifications frameworks

Development of national qualification frameworks (NQFs) is a global phenomenon, leading to stronger cooperation among countries and regions, and enhanced transparency, comparability and portability of qualifications worldwide.

Who is involved and how is the collaboration effected?

Cedefop, the ETF, UNESCO and the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning monitor global developments of NQFs and regional frameworks (RQFs).

Since 2013, the four institutions jointly published the Global inventory of regional and national qualifications frameworks, covering over 100 frameworks developed on five continents and introduced over the past two decades. Each edition of the inventory includes regional and national cases (2019, 2017, 2015, 2013), recording progress in establishing and implementing national and regional frameworks, and thematic chapters (2019, 2017, 2015, 2013) on transversal analysis of the most relevant topics, such as: the role of learning outcomes in governing and reforming education and training; access to and acquisition of skills and qualifications; digitalisation and credentialing methods; recognition and validation of prior learning; recognition of prior learning of migrants and refugees; quality assurance of qualifications; world reference levels for lifelong learning; lessons and challenges in measuring the impact of NQFs; and the relationship between qualification frameworks and the sustainable development agenda.

The aim of the inventory is to share knowledge with experts and officials and inform decision-makers implementing national and regional frameworks. The findings were presented at the Asia-Europe Education Ministers’ Meetings (ASEM ME) (2019, 2017, 2015, 2013) and the inventory was acknowledged (2019, 2017) as an important reference document supporting global monitoring by interested actors, providing policy analysis, and contributing to peer-learning.

 

Key findings, issues, challenges and trends

  • Numbers of frameworks, national and regional, has remained stable, while implementation of most frameworks has deepened and widened since 2017.
  • Regional frameworks: European qualifications framework and ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework are considered operational.
  • Several global trends such as internationalisation, digitalisation, migration, mobility and learning across borders are changing the education, training and qualifications systems. They set the context for national and regional qualifications framework implementation.
  • Digital learning is spreading all over the world, changing the relationship between formal/traditional qualifications and digital credentials, open badges, MOOCs etc.
  • Comprehensive frameworks including all levels and types of qualifications are gaining ground in Europe and elsewhere. European countries use their frameworks to create comprehensive maps of qualifications, including all sectors (VET, higher education, general education, adult training) and to help validate non-formally and informally acquired competences. This is seen as central to policies fostering people’s lifelong learning and progression through different pathways.
  • The concept of learning outcomes is becoming a common basis for almost all national and regional qualifications framework worldwide.
  • Qualifications frameworks and initiated reform have contributed to increasing the transparency of qualification systems and better access to lifelong learning opportunities.
  • The development of validation of non-formal and informal learning (VNFIL) is making learning outcomes visible and valued, as part of the efforts to reduce or remove barriers between learning and work and aid career progression. The spread of  NQFs based on learning outcomes has facilitated the validation and recognition of knowledge, skills and competences acquired in a non-formal setting. However, implementation, or wider application, of VNFIL is hindered by difficulties in gathering data to inform more effective policies and practices.
  • Policy makers need to present a stronger and more holistic case for the benefits that frameworks, skills and qualifications can offer, for individuals, employers, and the wider society. While those benefits typically relate to labour market access and longer-term career prospects, they also contribute to non-employment related outcomes as for instance improved physical and mental health and reduced demands on criminal justice systems.  
  • Teachers and trainers are shapers of the learning experience, which extends from the design of an overall plan to the day-to-day management of learning activities. Presenting teachers and trainers as both designers of a learning process and experts in its delivery opens up the prospect of greater integration between policy making and practice and stronger support for innovation. Outcomes-based approaches promoted or facilitated by NQFs are leading to the introduction of modular curricula.
  • The main challenge for the coming years is among others to keep NQFs up to the pace of digitization thus establishing trust across national and regional borders.

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