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Qualifications: Powerful currencies in search of an exchange mechanism

Qualifications largely determine our chances at employment, our ability to access further education and our social status. But they also have limitations: much of the knowledge and competence we acquire through life is left out of our diplomas, certificates and titles. To close this gap, both the education and employment worlds need to engage in redesigning and updating qualifications. This was the main theme of Cedefop’s Agora Conference, Qualifications for lifelong learning and employability (Thessaloniki 5-6 October), which examined how qualifications are used in today’s economy.

Making the best use of qualifications
The power and limitations of qualifications, and how they can be made to function better as the main bridge between education and employment, was the main theme of Cedefops recent Agora conference. 

Qualifications for lifelong learning and employability (Thessaloniki 5-6 October) focused on how qualifications are used in todays economy, and presented findings from a series of recent Cedefop publications that address the changing roles of qualifications in Europe.

But what are qualifications?

They are diplomas, certificates and titles allowing holders access to professional activity and further education and training. Their purpose is to cover the needs of individuals for employment and of the economy for skilled personnel.

To fulfil this role, qualifications must be able to do several things at once:

  • They must accurately reflect the individuals knowledge, skills and competence;
  • they must prove that these skills correspond to the standards required by the labour market; 
  • they must be clearly understood by all users individuals, employers and education systems across the single labour market of the EU. 

The question is, do they? 

Multiple actors, common values
Today qualifications are not exclusively awarded by public, national authorities, but also by industry sectors, multi-national companies, single enterprises and professions.  This diversity of qualifications represents a challenge for individual citizens, for employers and for education and training authorities. This challenge is in particular linked to the issue of trust. 

  • What skills and knowledge do such qualifications really represent?
  • Are they compatible with other qualifications, such as initial training acquired in the public education and training system? Do they have any value outside the company or sector where they were acquired?How can this value be assessed?

As the conference discussions made clear, such questions cannot be resolved unless all players, on both the education and employment sides, take an active part in setting and updating the standards that underpin the certification process. 

This is the space that the European and national qualification frameworks are meant to fill.  Their role is to reveal the relationships between all qualifications, however they may be acquired, and to accurately reflect the contents of these qualifications.  

The need for such frameworks has become widely accepted throughout Europe and so has the principle on which they are based: the learning outcomes approach, as enshrined in the European Qualifications Framework (EQF). This approach makes it possible for individuals, as well as employers, to understand the content of each qualification, no matter the national or sectoral provenance. 

Visible progress
All EU countries have stated that they will develop comprehensive NQFs covering all types and levels of qualifications in their countries. Some are already well on the way to achieving this goal.

  • France and Ireland have introduced systems that include every kind of qualification and all stakeholders
  • Ireland and Malta have tied their national qualification frameworks to the EQF  
  • Germany, Poland, Finland and Denmark, among other countries, are working intensively toward this goal
  • More and more Member States, such as Portugal, are introducing recognition of prior learning. 

Such developments encourage people to pursue further education. The more they are motivated to add news knowledge and skills, the more likely the country is to build a qualified workforce.  

What next
Cedefop has been at the forefront of research and policy development regarding qualifications. In the next year the Centre will be examining:

  • How curricula based on the learning outcomes approach affect teaching and learning (report due in 2010)
  • How qualifications can best link education and the labour market: the quest for a common language 
  • The relationship between the Directive on professional qualifications (2005/36/EC) and the EQF:
  • How companies use validation methods to recruit staff 
  • The continued development of skills forecasting.
  • Coherence between the various European tools (EQF, ECVET, Europass, validation and guidance and counselling):
  • The need to reduce barriers between higher education and vocational education and training (i.e. to create links between the Copenhagen and Bologna processes).


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