European education policy – what are its aims and what does it entail?

In the framework of Europe 2010 and Europe 2020, the European Commission (EC) has called for an intelligent, sustainable and integrative economy but also aired the aim of making Europe the most competitive and dynamic economic area in the world. One important mean to reach this goal is education policy – more should be done to enable young people to find their place on the labour market and older employees to retain their employment for as long as possible – through a well-organised and lifelong qualification process.

Comparing not harmonising

How much unity is there in European education policy and how much do we want to achieve? How much political power should the EC have when shaping general and vocational education policy in its member states? Formally, the area of education still lies within the competence of the individual member states but they have also agreed on increasing cooperation in this field through ‘open coordination.’

There is little know about the tools Europe offers in order to increase transparency

This is the background against which European vocational education and training (VET) becomes increasingly more “European” in nature – accompanied by instruments and concepts that most have already heard about but very few know and understand: the European Qualifications Framework (EQF), the European Credit System for Vocational Education and Training (ECVET), the Europass, the European principles for the identification and validation of non-formal and informal learning (some refer to it as prior learning), the European Quality Assurance Reference Framework for Vocational Education and Training (EQARF) … We will not go into depth and explain all these mechanisms and concepts. What they all have in common is that they aim to achieve a greater level of transparency and comparability between the individual qualifications systems of the member states but also in between individual qualifications in order to promote more opportunity for learners and workers to move between different states but also between different education (sub-)systems.

Transferring learning outcomes across borders through credit systems

In 2009, the EC passed a recommendation to the member states to adopt a framework for common quality criteria in the quality assurance in initial and continuing VET (EQARF) as well as the European Credit System for Vocational Education and Training (ECVET). The purpose of ECVET is to enable the transfer of learning outcomes (elements of qualifications) in vocational education based on the example of the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) which is already being applied in higher education throughout Europe. The difference between ECVET and ECTS is that whilst ECTS is based on input (length of the learning process), ECVET is supposed to be based on output (the results of the learning process. Only very few countries in the EU have experience with credit systems in VET so the member states are currently involved in extensive piloting and testing projects and initiatives in which they try to establish if and how such a credit system could be applied.

The EQF - a translation device for qualifications

The recommendation on the European Qualifications Framework was passed in 2008. The individual member states have since been in or completed the process of establishing National Qualifications Frameworks (NQF). The EQF is a common European reference framework which puts the different European qualification systems in relation to one another. It is intended to be a translation instrument that clarifies the value and meaning of qualifications that have been acquired in different education systems. The EQF is divided into eight hierarchically structured levels which span the three dimensions of “knowledge”, “skills” and “competence.”

The initial aim was for the individual member states to design their own NQFs by 2010 and relate them to the EQF. From 2012 onwards, all certificates (proofs of qualifications) should bear a reference to the relevant EQF level. Most countries have not been able to stick to this ambitious timeline. Although the majority of member states have now adopted national qualifications frameworks, the development process has still not been finalized in all EU member states.

The process of developing and referencing qualifications frameworks has gone widely unnoticed by the public. The impact and benefits that go hand in hand with the development of EU-wide qualifications frameworks still remain to be seen. In an optimum scenario, the comparison and understanding of qualifications from other countries will become easier. However, this will also depend very much on the mutual trust that is put in the respective qualifications frameworks and referencing process.