The Rising Sun of Education in the EU: Lifelong Learning and the European Qualification Framework

bridges vol. 17, April 2008 / Feature Article

by Florian Pecenka

Mr. Pontinha, a 55-year-old man originally from a small Portuguese village named Cinfães had to leave the local school after only four years of elementary schooling to help his parents in farming. He and his family lived in Montemuro, a poor region in the north of Portugal where life is hard and prosperity modest. Dissatisfied with his situation, Mr. Pontinha took several continuing education courses such as informatics, foreign languages, and auditing. With 15 years of continuous learning and further training, new professional possibilities opened up to Mr. Pontinha: now, he has evolved from the agriculture worker he was 20 years ago to become the director of production and human resources in a medium-sized enterprise with 90 employees.


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It is to support people just like Mr. Pontinha that the European Union (EU) has set up the Lifelong Learning (LLL) Program – to empower its citizens to move freely between learning settings, jobs, regions, and countries, making the most of their knowledge and competences. It is also set up to meet the goals and ambitions of the European Union and the candidate countries themselves, to be more prosperous, inclusive, tolerant, and democratic.


LLL includes the so-called European Qualification Framework (EQF). On April 23rd Hans-Gert Pöttering, president of the European Parliament and the Council co-signed the EQF. EQF is a tool designed to build bridges between formal, informal, and non-formal education of all EU Member States. It has been created to become the common European reference framework that links countries' qualifications systems together, acting as a translation device to make qualifications easier to interpret. EQF has two principal goals: to promote citizens' mobility between countries and to facilitate their lifelong learning.


Lifelong Learning in a nutshell

It was in 2000 that The Lisbon European Council set a new strategic goal to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion. In the field of education, it concluded that increased transparency of qualifications should be one of the main components necessary to adapt education and training systems in the Community to the demands of the knowledge society.


The Lisbon strategy served as a starting point to regroup all education programs within the European Union and to continue to develop them. Citizens should get adequate education at all levels of life, beginning with school and ending with adult education, as a measure to support efforts towards a knowledge-based society.


In 2006 the Commission founded the new Life Long Learning Program, which encompasses Comenius (School), Erasmus (Higher Education), Leonardo da Vinci (Vocational Education and Training (VET) ) and Grundtvig (Adult Education) programs. In addition, there exists a transversal program with four key activities, which affects all four programs mentioned before. The Jean Monnet program forms an equal part of LLL. The EQF is part of LLL and is funded with € 6.9 billion during 2007–2013.


Structure of Lifelong Learning program of EU
Structure of Lifelong Learning program of EU - click to enlarge


The European Qualification Framework

As a reference framework, EQF acts as a translation device that interlinks the qualifications systems of the Member States.
There are eight levels in the EQF; each of them is defined by a set of descriptors indicating the learning outcomes relevant to qualifications at that level in any system of qualifications. Qualification in terms of EQF refers to all types of qualification a person has acquired through formal, informal, or non-formal learning. The EQF is able to classify qualifications such as university degrees, working experience, or just a language course in Spanish during your last vacation. Therefore the eight levels focus on learning outcomes defined through knowledge, skills, and competences.


The consequence for the Member States is to switch their curricula from learning incomes to learning outcomes. This is an ongoing process in higher education through the Bologna Process and for Vocational Education and Training (VET) through the Copenhagen Process.


So let’s take another look at the case of Mr. Pontinha: A validation of his acquired qualifications in 2001 by the RVCC Center of Reconhecimento, Validação e Certificação de Competências supported by ANOP, Associação Nacional de Oficinas de Projecto corresponds to Level 4 of Portugal’s own National Qualifications Framework (NQF).


With all the currently existing different standards within the EU, one can now only assume that Level 4 NQF might (but not necessarily) conform to level 4 of the EQF. Level 4 EQF might also (but again not necessarily) conform to level 4 of Austria’s NQF – however, this is not firm knowledge but rather an assumption...


What would happen if Mr. Pontinha decided to pursue his professional career, or further education, in another country such as Austria for example? Both are surely possible but not without obstacles: in terms of work, it would be difficult for his future employer to correctly assess Mr. Pontinha’s acquired qualifications, something certainly important: first, to be considered for a desired job, and second, for the following salary negotiations between future employer and employee. As for pursuing further training in Austria, Mr. Pontinha would need to have his entire education recognized again, which means the Ministry of Education, Culture and Arts determines his level of qualification according to Austrian standards. The recognition process is a long administrative and rather cumbersome procedure where the applicant has to present all certificates and diplomas, requiring official translations, etc.


To avoid those problems for future references the EQF will make an individual's qualifications more transparent by using a common set of learning outcomes defined in terms of knowledge, skills, and attitudes says the European Commissioner for Education, Ján Figel’. The following figure illustrates how it will work:


The European Qualification Framework and the future National Qualification Frameworks (c) European Commission
The European Qualification Framework and the future National Qualification Frameworks
(c) European Commission
click to enlarge


Creating EQF-adaptable National Qualification Frameworks: Example Austria

Since the EQF is an overarching framework which applies to the whole EU and does not enter into the specifics of each Member State, each country has to develop a national qualification framework that focuses on the needs and particularities of its educational system. In Austria the Ministry of Science and Research and the Ministry of Education, the Arts and Culture are championing the project.


In Summer 2007, a national board committee was set up in which all ministries and social partners are represented. In addition, the Ministry of Science and Research set up an advisory committee on which the Austrian Student Union, Universities Austria, Austrian Universities of Applied Sciences Conference, Austrian Universities of Applied Sciences Board, Austrian Accreditation Board, Austrian Agency for Quality Assurance and the Austrian Association of private Universities are represented. Its main function is to represent the interests of Higher Education. However, the final decision on the NQF lies with the Austrian Government.


In January 2008, the Austrian NQF consultation paper was presented to the public. The consultation on the first draft version is ongoing and every stakeholder can make comments until June 30, 2008. As mentioned before, the EQF comprises formal, informal, and non-formal qualifications; so does the NQF. Therefore, to integrate all three types of qualifications, three corridors have been set up – one corridor for each type of qualification. The consultation paper proposes to build a NQF with 8 levels parallel to the EQF to facilitate the translation between NQF level/ EQF level.


Joerg Markowitsch from 3s consulting, a consulting company deeply involved in the development of the Austrian NQF, says that “the NQF will provide a new view on the Austrian Qualification System, which makes it easier both for foreigners and Austrians (!) to understand our systems. There is a big chance to correct the international picture of the Austrian Qualification Systems – and also the rather low rate of academics compared to other countries – by increasing the visibility of the contributions made by higher vocational qualifications such as VET Colleges and Master craftsmen.”


All information regarding the development of the NQF is published on the Web site of the Ministry for Science and Research. On February 27, an information event with all concerned stakeholders took place. The overall feedback was very positive, however some stakeholders expressed their concerns about the definition of learning outcomes and assignment of qualifications.


Since the Bologna Process began developing a qualification framework for higher education, an intensive discussion about how to define learning outcomes in higher education has taken place in Europe. The discussion was developed more fully in the Dublin descriptors.


Future Challenges

The creation of NQFs certainly poses some tough questions to address: after all, a country’s whole educational system has to be adapted in order to be compatible with the EQF. There are open issues such as the basic question of the national framework being static or dynamic, and if the formal process of creating such a framework should be addressed by a law or a simple recommendation.


Another big challenge is to classify qualifications into the different NQF levels. In Austria there are several types of schools, several types of VET qualifications, etc. – but only eight levels in the NQF. From those eight levels, levels six to eight are already reserved for the universities, so only five levels are left for other qualifications. Level 6 NQF is reserved for universities’ bachelor’s degrees, level 7 for universities’ master’s degrees, and level 8 for Ph.D. For example, the VET sector wants to see their master craftsman degree also in level 6, unthinkable for the universities’ sector. The VET sector argues that a master craftsman degree is equivalent to a bachelor’s degree, but not congeneric to a university master’s degree. NQF certainly needs to be open to introduce new thinking.


EQF goes international

As Commissioner Figel puts it “the EQF goes to the heart of what the EU is about: mobility, cooperation between countries, promoting prosperity, and helping individual citizens fulfill their potential through learning. Beyond education and training, the framework is also consistent with efforts to build a genuine European labor market and to help Europe’s citizens cope with change.” But what does EQF mean to other countries such as the United States?


A better understanding of European education and well directed learning

One important goal of the EQF to the international community is to provide clear information to international stakeholders (e.g., students, employers, HEI) regarding the nature of European degrees.
As Commissioner Figel’ points out “The common reference provided by the EQF will make it easier for European and other foreign businesses and scientists in the USA to make their qualifications understandable to US employers and institutions. In practical terms, from 2012 on, all new qualifications issued in Europe will bear a reference to the appropriate EQF level. But to facilitate understanding of the EQF in the USA will require dialogue and promotion.”
Commissioner Figel
Commissioner Figel



Another big challenge is assessment: EQF not only covers formal, but also non-formal and informal qualifications. For the last two types of qualifications, no reliable validation process existed until now. With the work on EQF, the commission asked CEDEFOP to develop European guidelines on validation of non-formal and informal learning. The guidelines will help to ensure that the process of making visible the full range of knowledge, skills, and experiences held by an individual is carried out in a way that remains voluntary and the results of validation remain the property of the individual. The principles should emphasize [that] the roots of trust in the process of validation depend on fairness, transparency, and quality assurance of the choice of robust methodologies. Credibility and legitimacy based on participation of relevant stakeholders is also needed.


Lifelong learning in the USA

According to the Center of American Progress, the United States urgently needs its own Lifelong Learning strategy. Brian Bosworth, author of Lifelong Learning: New Strategies for the Education of Working Adults outlines that the US is confronted with a shrinking workforce with low educational skills, especially too few people with post-secondary degrees. Bosworth urges the US to rapidly set up new national lifelong learning strategies and to procure the necessary funds.

Other national experts take a page from the same book: “While various education opportunities are available to older Americans, the US has no nationally recognized policy regarding lifelong learning” conclude Kelly Young and Ed Rosenberg in their article “Lifelong Learning in the United States and Japan”, which was published by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. They continue with the parlous situation that “to survive and gain legitimacy, many adult education programs in America have had to attach themselves to other institutions or programs that are not specifically focused on adult education.”

Although the Senate passed the Older Americans Act in the 1970s, with provisions for educating elderly persons, the federal government has no national lifelong learning strategy, nor is enough funding available. Despite the lack of federal engagement in the issue, lifelong learning institutes and colleges have spread around the country, where grown-ups interested in continuing their education can attend classes. But the effort isn’t coordinated and operates mainly on a local level. Lifelong learning is mostly supported by the private sector in the US.

Even if Europe and the US seem to have a different approach to lifelong learning, one should remember Mr. Pontinha’s words: “To all, whether more or less young, always you get an opportunity to learn, I’m saying: take it. Even with 55 years it pays off!” The coming years will show us whether the sun of lifelong learning is rising in the educational system of Europe and/or the US.