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Achieving quality in validation systems: are users the missing link?

Andrew McCoshan on the need of quality assurance in non-formal and informal learning.

The referenced media source is missing and needs to be re-embedded.

The need for effective quality assurance is an essential underpinning measure in the validation of non-formal and informal learning. It has been enshrined as such in the Council Recommendation of 2012 that has set EU Member States on the path to putting in place fully fledged validation systems by 2018. But what progress are Member States making and what’s stopping a more rapid advance?

There are three elements identified in the recommendation that we should consider, if we are looking at quality in an holistic way:

  • quality assurance related to assessment;
  • the issue of equivalence of standards between qualifications obtained via validation and through formal routes and
  • the existence of linkages to national qualifications frameworks.

The current inventory on validation provides some insights into rates of progress. It indicates that, of these three measures, it is the development of quality assurance where most effort is still required. Fewer than half of the countries surveyed fully meet the requirements of the 2012 recommendation that quality assurance measures should be (a) transparent, (b) in line with existing quality assurance frameworks and (c) support reliable, valid and credible assessment methods. Interestingly, these countries are spread across Europe, spanning a highly diverse set of education and training systems. Eight other countries are judged to need “urgent action” to develop appropriate measures.

Regarding linkages to national qualifications frameworks (NQFs), most countries report that non-formal and informal learning can be used to acquire qualifications on their frameworks and/or can be used to access formal education covered by the NQF. However, the picture is quite patchy in terms of whether this applies to all qualifications.

In relation to qualification standards, most countries apply the same or equivalent standards to qualifications acquired through validation as through formal education. Again, however, the picture is a complex one. Qualifications acquired through validation may be different to those acquired through formal pathways even though they are judged against equivalent standards. And in the same country, different arrangements can apply in different education and training sectors, especially between higher education and vocational education and training.

Should this give us cause for concern? Evidently, the picture is very patchy and it is difficult to get a clear view on how well developed systems are as a whole in relation to quality. Nonetheless, two key questions can be asked:

  • Why does the rate of progress in QA measures appear to lag behind that of qualification standards, given that the two should be closely interlinked?
  • Will formal equivalence between qualifications obtained through validation and through formal pathways guarantee equivalent status in the wider economy and society?

Finally, we can ask what is missing. Is one answer to this question entitlement? The Recommendation does not require access to validation to be a right. But is this missing a key driver of quality, namely “consumer” demand? It is not difficult to imagine what such “consumers” would demand: access to the process and to a qualification that is indistinguishable from one acquired through formal learning. Of course, it is difficult to imagine validation becoming an entitlement in the current economic climate since it would have major financial ramifications. But empowering potential users could act as a spur to increasing quality, particularly given the current trend to devolution of responsibilities within education and training systems. And it might be a vital step in the face of the rise in popularity of outputs-based funding if costs of inputs become an increasing issue.

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