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National validation network – a reality check for EU visions

EU validation visions meet reality in the discussions of the National NVL Validation Network in Finland. The Network plays an important role in disseminating, criticising and improving validation policy at national level.

Validation of prior learning.


EU validation visions meet reality in the discussions of the National NVL Validation Network in Finland. The Network plays an important role in disseminating, criticising and improving validation policy at national level.


Think of adult education across Europe, with its myriad national and local characteristics. Recommendations concerning education and skills flowing down from the EU level to the member states are like rough croquis sketches compared to the colourful grassroots level – especially as education is entirely a member state competence.

Education ministries in each country are the highest authority in adapting – or indeed choosing not to adapt – the EU vision to the national reality. But this is just a part of the clockwork. National and regional professional networks play a central role in nuancing the supranational EU vision, including acting as a critic for both EU and national policy.

In this article we look at a particular example of such a network, the National NVL Validation Network in Finland. The network operates under The Nordic Network for Adult Learning (NVL), and its own Nordic validation network.

NVL Validation Network.

The National NVL Validation Network is a cross-sectoral community of practice and one of the longest-running networks of the NVL. In the photo most of the NVL National validation network members gathered for an intense two-day meeting in October 2019 to plan for 2020.

Photo: NVL


The National Network is a quality controller

Johanni Larjanko stretches out his palm and moves it up, then downwards in steps.

 ‘Any new EU level recommendation or stance on validation is first discussed in the Nordic validation network,’ he illustrates. Larjanko works as national NVL coordinator and is a member of the National Network.

The open palm descends even further.

‘Then the broader topic typically makes its way to our National Network meeting, often carried by our two members who sit on both networks. This level, the National Network, is very interesting, as it gets a reality check through our members.’

This is possible because the network, made up of education professionals, is cross-sectoral. Non-formal adult education, vocational and higher education, government and employers are all represented. Membership in the network is voluntary and an extension of the members’ work duties, much like in a community of practice. Members include, for instance, educators, civil servants, administrators and an HR professional.

‘Validation issues are the daily bread and butter of our members. Therefore we can add depth and questions of quality to our discussions. The first reaction to, say, the declarations of the May Validation Biennale in Berlin may be that "all of these things are already in order in the Nordics." But we can’t avoid seeing behind this consensus and ask "Yes, systems may be in place but how well is validation done?".’


Network is a discussion starter

According to Larjanko, these questions of quality often lead to self-reflection in the group as members are personally in positions that enable them to make changes concerning recognition and validation in their respective workplaces.

Larjanko’s insight is confirmed by Virva Muotka, member of the network and adult educator at Axxell vocational institute.

‘As a network, it is not in our mandate to give out declarations or official recommendations. Instead we hope to stimulate discussion and progress in our own field,’ Muotka explains.

‘Discussion is not to be underestimated,’ Larjanko adds.

‘Sometimes the first nudge towards discussion may be crucial as these are complex issues, and learning organisations in Finland are quite autonomous.’

‘True. And cross-sectorality means that there are no conflicting business interests in the group so we can compare good practices freely,’ Muotka adds.


Basic skills and immigrant education are salient topics

Topics of guidance, immigrant skills, basic skills and marginalisation have dominated the network’s agenda in recent times. As a specialist in immigrant education Muotka can easily pinpoint the blind spots of the Finnish validation debate regarding these burning issues. According to her, recognition of learning should be overarchingly systemised, following the French benchmark.

‘Recognition of prior learning, competence profiling and a training plan should be the absolute first steps for the whole workforce – otherwise employers risk wasting resources in employee trainings that don’t address the actual skill gaps of the workforce.’

Muotka adds that these skill gaps often concern basic skills, especially for certain immigrant groups and the more senior workforce.

Merja Oljakka, another member of the network agrees on the importance of a wider learning and skills recognition system. Oljakka is the director of employee development at SOL – a multiservice company and represents the employer voice in the national network.

‘I feel that my work in this group offers a fuller view into validation questions in different sectors –something my employer also values. I see this as a forum for making a difference,’ Oljakka reflects.


Tangible impact?

Discussion starter, national disseminator, a think tank of sorts, a conduit between Commission corridors and the real learning space – this is how the National Network is described by its members. What about change-maker? How concrete are the network’s achievements?

‘It is hard to pinpoint an exact piece of, say, Finnish legislation that would be a result of our work, just as it is hard to measure the impact of public debate,’ Larjanko points out.

‘I would argue that enshrining the EQF learning outcome levels into Finnish law might be an achievement of our network – or rather of individuals active in our network. Ultimately, it is about what the individuals in our network learn and then take back to their own circles,’ Muotka points out.


One-and-a-half-way street between the EU and member states

The national network is a conduit of information from the EU to the national level, after having been filtered through the Nordic level. Does information flow into the other direction too? Does the EU reach out to the Nordic or national networks to learn what is happening in the member states?

According to Larjanko and Muotka, they do, to an extent. For instance, in the May Berlin Validation Biennale, the EU officials were keen to hear development ideas from the national level. Then again, the network itself lacks a mandate for political activism.

‘I would describe it as a one-and-a-half-way street between the national and EU strata,’ Larjanko smiles.


A critical friend available

A future challenge for the network is to raise its national profile. Larjanko admits that despite its activity spanning over a decade, the network is relatively little known in the Finnish education field.

‘We would welcome being consulted on. Both the national and EU levels could reach out to us to pick our brains,’ Larjanko explains.

‘We have always been a critical friend of the EU validation agenda. We share the overall vision but are not afraid of criticising it – for the benefit of all!’


The National NVL Validation Network in Finland:

  • has been active for over ten years;
  • meets 4 times a year;
  • represents all sectors of adult education from non-formal adult education to higher education, and private sector employers;
  • is a network for sharing knowledge and good practices, with the overall aim of furthering the quality and harmonisation of validation and recognition of learning practices;
  • is a channel of information between the EU level and the Nordic Network of Validation.

Markus Palmen is a journalist, writer and audiovisual producer, and a freelancer. Since August 2017 he has been EPALE's Thematic Coordinator for Policy. For eight years Markus was the Managing Editor and Editor-in-Chief for the European Lifelong Learning Magazine.

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The Nordic Network of Adult Learning is a network of networks, which operates under the auspices of the Nordic Council of Ministers. The purpose of the NVL expert networks is to provide recommendations and guidelines to the NCM - as well as to produce tools and research for the educational field on the Nordic countries. The national NVL thematic networks operate on a national level to disseminate the Nordic tools and to discuss their relation to national practices and thus give feedback to the Nordic level.
Just to add to the article - as a Finnish long-term member of the Nordic Network of Adult Learning, both Nordic and national networks - the Nordic validation network has had quite a concrete impact on validation issues on the EU level. The network has been operational since 2005 and we have organized several events in cooperation with the EU, served as an expert organisation for the Commission and CEDEFOP as well as the UNESCO Institute for lifelong learning, commenting on their papers and guidelines on validation (e.g. European Guidelines for Validating Non-formal and Informal Learning, 2015). Also, the NVL has been a partner organisation and in the steering committee of all the Validation of Prior Learning Biennales (Rotterdam 2014, NL; Aarhus 2017, DK and Berlin 2019, DE). 
The most notable impacts of the Nordic lobbying have been the following: Guidance is an integral part of validation - not a separate tool; The individual is in the center of validation - not the organisational structures. These two aspect were missing from the original EU drafts, but after the Nordic lobbying activities, these two core issues were brought into the EU-level papers. 
It is also noteworthy that the Finnish, Icelandic and Danish member of the NVL network are responsible for writing the European Inventory for Validation of Non-formal and Informal Learning. In this respect the national networks are really important in terms of gathering cases and data from the different educational sectors.
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