International conference on qualifications systems

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Education based on learning outcomes, transparent principles for the award of diplomas and certificates, the possibility to gain qualifications outside of formal education, and better adaptation of employee competences to labour market requirements – experts from 15 countries discussed the benefits of implementing qualifications frameworks at the international conference “Qualifications Frameworks as an Instrument of Public Policy for Lifelong Learning”. The event took place on 8-9 November 2012 in Warsaw.

The conference was organised by the Educational Research Institute, where work is on-going on a new qualifications system and the Polish Qualifications Framework (PQF), together with the National Team of Bologna Experts, working with the Foundation for the Development of the Education System. The patrons of the event were government departments dealing with the groundwork on implementing qualifications frameworks in Poland – the Ministry of National Education and Ministry of Science and Higher Education, together with the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy.

Over 130 experts took part in the two-day event presenting Polish achievements in developing and implementing a qualifications system and the benefits of this solution brings countries and their populations. Conference guests included officials from the majority of Central and Eastern European countries, Turkey, Kazakhstan, the European Commission, OECD, World Bank and Council of Europe.

The conference was officially opened by education minister Krystyna Szumilas, who emphasised the fact that the organisers had successfully brought together guests from almost every corner of Europe. “This shows how important the issue of qualifications frameworks is and emphasises the significance of exchanging experiences between countries. I hope that our joint discussions and exchange of opinions will broaden our knowledge and enable the implementation of qualifications frameworks in Poland and beyond,” she said.

The two-day discussions involving both domestic and international specialists focussed primarily on qualifications frameworks supporting lifelong learning policy. It was demonstrated that this is a unique opportunity for exchange of international experience on creating qualifications frameworks, a process which is at various stages of development in different countries.

Compared to the rest of Europe, in Poland the process of implementing the qualifications system is at a fairly advanced stage. Development will soon be completed on a draft reference report describing the way in which the Polish Qualifications Framework relates to the European Qualifications Framework. Reform is also on-going in general, vocational and higher education, which places emphasis on what people know, what they are capable of and how they are able to use their knowledge and skills, not merely how long they have been at school or university. The way in which specific competences are adapted to current labour market requirements is also significant, since this determines competitiveness levels in the Europe-wide labour market.

“For the system to work, all segments of education must be included,” stated deputy minister of science and higher education Daria Lipińska-Nałęcz. “We have a lot of work ahead of us, particularly for the post-25 age group. We traditionally learn at an intensive rate, but at around this age we stop, thinking that we are already capable of everything we need and that our level of education will last us until the end of our working lives. In today’s world this is not a sufficient approach. We have to help people to change, to show them that there is nothing wrong with education gained at a later stage – increasing qualification levels, supplementation, even re-training. This is the best way to ensure lifelong success.” As the experts emphasise, due to the advanced stage and substantive quality of its work, Poland is capable of becoming an inspiration and a support for Central and Eastern European countries, particularly those from the former Eastern Bloc.

“In Poland the framework is not just theory – it is harmonised with what has been on-going since 2007 within the education system, particularly in higher education. In comparison with many European countries it is not just the dream of a few activists and academics,” says Prof Zbigniew Marciniak, an expert from the Educational Research Institute. His opinions are confirmed by other experts. “We are accustomed to reform and this drives us forward,” says Dr Agnieszka Chłoń-Domińczak, leader of the Educational Research Institute project to develop substantive and institutional assumptions for implementation of National Qualifications Frameworks and the National Qualifications Register for lifelong learning.

International experts have praised the Polish model not just for the advanced stage of work on the framework but for the approach to its development. They have emphasised the extreme openness of the process, taking place as it does through public discussions involving government officials, employer and employee organisations, labour market institutions including employment agencies, and also teachers and lecturers. These participants are able to submit proposals, jointly develop best solutions and systematically deal with questions and doubts which may arise. The skills of experts working on the Polish framework were also commended. In May 2012 a group of 12 specialists was appointed, representing areas such as vocational education, higher education and industry organisations. In addition, international experts from Scotland, Germany, Austria and Hungary have contributed their valuable and practical experience to development of the reference report.

Debates at the conference took place both as plenary sessions and as smaller panel discussions. The event programme was divided into two subject-specific areas. The first day was dedicated to the benefits of introducing qualifications frameworks, changes in vocational education and the role of frameworks in preparing employees for labour market requirements. Speakers included Joanne Caddy from the OECD and Nina Arnhold from the World Bank, whose talk included information on the bank’s forecasts for the domestic labour market. “Research among Polish companies and data from the Central Statistical Office show that in Poland there has been a drop in jobs requiring low-level qualifications, with an increase in jobs where high-level qualifications are required. This is why continuing adult education is so important, since many experts believe that starting education at ages above 40 is already too difficult for many people.”

The first day also saw two panel discussions at which experiences in implementing qualifications frameworks in countries such as Turkey, Poland, Norway and Hungary were presented and compared. The aims of work in Poland were presented by Dr Agnieszka Chłoń-Domińczak from the Educational Research Institute, who emphasised that in Poland this is aimed at reforming the entire education system. “The basis for our qualifications system is to popularise the notion of lifelong learning. We believe that the Polish framework provides emphasis for the modernisation of all forms of adult learning through innovation,” she explained. A more conservative approach was voiced by Ǿyvind Bjerkestrand of Norway’s Ministry of Education and Research, who noted that his country is also in the process of developing a framework through public consultation, but that the process is progressing gradually and is more geared towards adapting the framework to the existing system.

The ambitious goals and rapid development of the Polish Qualifications Framework was praised by Erzsebet Szlamka from Hungary’s Ministry of National Resources. “We commenced work on our framework several years ago but we are already behind Poland. As is the case here, our education system is spread between various government departments. This means that today we are attempting to create bridging frameworks and pilot projects since we have already been through so many education system reforms that a subsequent fundamental shakeup could risk stakeholder disillusionment.”

The second day of the conference was dedicated to the functioning of qualifications frameworks in higher education. Panellists dealt with topics including whether higher education institutions respond to labour market requirements and the role that they play in integrating individual lifelong learning strategies. Maria Kristin Gylfadottir from the European Commission presented the EU’s priorities for this process. “By 2020, 30% of qualifications will require university-level skills. Our objective is for 40% of the EU’s population to complete higher education,” she said. Participants agreed that universities should create conditions for lifelong learning. They stated that one particularly significant condition is to be open to alternative forms of education and to enable people wishing to gain competences through non-formal and informal education to study. For this reason changes must be aimed at creating a transparent system for the confirmation and recognition by universities of prior learning outcomes, and for confirmed skills gained through non-formal education to have the same value as those gained through formal education.

In some countries, for example Scotland, this system is in operation and is subject to constant improvement but in many European countries, including Poland, it is still not subject to any type of regulation. Many experts believe that universities should support the needs of non-traditional students and assist them in the transition from non-formal and informal to formal learning. “Ensuring flexible learning pathways is one of the means to improve adaptation of higher education to changes, not just in the labour market,” stated Prof Andrzej Kraśniewski of the Warsaw University of Technology, secretary general of the Conference of Rectors. “Universities should provide services, for example in identifying student competences which aid in specifying learning objectives, and together with the student develop a learning strategy.” The issue of adapting the range of services and functioning of higher education institutions to labour market requirements – one of the last topics of the four panel discussions – led to a lively discussion. Experiences in this field were presented by Prof Tomasz Szapiro, rector of the Warsaw School of Economics, which currently educates 16 000 students and employs 800 academic staff. As he explained, due to high levels of education but also extensive engagement with businesses, which organise ventures including the Business Cooperation Office, Partner Club and Corporate Partner Consultative Council, students at his university are better able to manage their transition to the labour market.

“From the third and fourth years of study there are links with employers. Partner companies organise courses and internships, which is the result of factors including good cooperation with Warsaw School of Economics graduates who provide the inspiration for many of these activities. For this reason the emphasis is not on best practices but on reality, because the students more often than not know more about practice than their lecturers,” he stated. A less optimistic view of university adaptation to labour market requirements was presented by Alicia Leonor Sauli Miklavćić from Slovenia’s association of higher vocational education institutions. As proof she cited the results of studies carried out in the UK, which show the extreme differences in assessment of useful vocational qualifications among graduates and employers. “The first group consider the most important abilities to be computer skills, postgraduate education, the results of learning or a diploma, while further down the list are teamwork skills, reliability, responsibility and willingness to take up challenges – skills which adversely are the most significant for employers. This means that as universities we are highly adept at transferring knowledge but not necessary social competences,” she said.

The conference ended with a speech by Jan Truszczyński, Director-General of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education and Culture, who summarised the progress being made in work on qualifications frameworks throughout Europe and outlined Brussels’ education strategy. “The economic crisis has impacted on the labour market but has shown the need to adapt employee skills to market requirements, where the need for high-level qualifications is increasing,” he stated. He referred to unbeneficial demographic changes, requiring actions which increase the level of motivation for lifelong learning. “This needs a change in thinking and will be a long-term process. In the European Union, all those who wish to learn must be provided with institutional support and formal recognition of the competences they have acquired previously. Education and training have become a priority in the 10-year EU strategy and a priority for multi-annual programmes such as EFS and Erasmus. Lifelong learning must become the most universal standard in EU member states,” he added.

Presentations from the conference:

Nina Arnhold - Senior Education Specialist at the World Bank’s Human Development Department. In her current work she is covering a wide range of education reform topics in countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Steve Besley - Head of Policy (UK and international) at Pearson. pdf

Ǿyvind Bjerkestrand - Senior Adviser at the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.

Joanne Caddy - Senior Policy Analyst in the OECD’s Directorate for Education where she is responsible for work on building effective skills strategies and for developing future editions of the OECD Skills Outlook.

Agnieszka Chłoń-Domińczak - NQF Project Leader. She works at the Warsaw School of Economics (SGH) Institute of Statistics and Demography and the Institute of Educational Research (IBE). pdf

Mile Dzelalija - professor of physics at the University of Split. He represents Croatia in the EQF Advisory Group and National Correspondents for the QF-EHEA. pdf

Maria Kristin Gylfadottir - policy officer in Higher Education and the Erasmus programme in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education and Culture. pdf

Asli Karatekin - works at the Turkish Employers’ Union Association of Construction Industrıes (INTES) as a European Union Project Coordinator since 2007.

Michal Karpisek  -  serves as a Vicepresident of EURASHE, a representation of the professionally and applied-science oriented sector of higher education.

Andrzej Kraśniewski - since 2008 he has been a member of the Bologna Experts Group. Secretary General of the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland (CRASP). pdf

Anthony O'Reilly - is part of the Executive Team within the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework Partnership (SCQFP). His role includes working on projects promoting the use of the Framework to a range of stakeholders.

Alicia-Leonor Sauli-Miklavčič - Secretary General of the Slovene Association of Higher Vocational Colleges (Skupnost VSŠ).

Tomasz Szapiro - Professor of Economics at the School of Economics in Warsaw; in 2012, elected rector of the School. pdf

Ruth Whittaker - Head of the Centre of Learning Enhancement and Academic Development (GCU LEAD) at Glasgow Caledonian University, Scotland.
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