[Translation (French- English) : EPALE France]
In this second episode of her stay in Belgium, Isabelle HOUOT looks at how the Validation of Prior Learning (VPL) works at universities in Belgium, with answers from Arnaud SALMON, attaché/representative at the Direction of Academic Affairs of ARES and Anne GRYBZ, VPL project manager and adviser in lifelong learning at UCLouvain.
What is VPL in French-speaking Belgium?
It is an alternative route to higher education that allows adults who are returning to school to enrol at a university, vocational training institute (and fine arts academies) without the required qualifications.
It is governed by a federal decree, resulting from the Bologna Process. It is a procedure for admission to different training courses on the basis of recognition of professional and/or personal experience by an academic panel.
What does this decree say about higher education?
“Article 119. - § 1. Subject to the general requirements laid down by the authorities of the higher education institution, with the aim of admission to the undergraduate programme, the examination boards accredit the knowledge and skills that students have obtained through their professional or personal experience.
This experience must correspond to at least five years of documented activity, with years spent in higher education being partially taken into account: 60 credits are deemed equivalent to one year of experience, with a maximum of two years being counted. At the end of an assessment procedure organized by the authorities of the higher education institution, the examination panel will decide whether a student has sufficient skills and knowledge to successfully pursue undergraduate studies.
After this assessment, the examination panel will determine the additional courses and possible exemptions constituting the supplementary requirements for the student’s admission."
“§ 2. With a view to admission to studies through recognition of the knowledge and skills of students acquired through their professional or personal experience, the higher education institution shall organise individualised support aimed at informing the student of the procedure to be followed as set by the authorities of the institution and specified in the rules of study, and at facilitating the student's procedures until the end of the evaluation procedure referred to in § 1."
How does it work?
Since the decree of 31 March 2004, anyone who has acquired at least five years' experience in a particular field, either professionally or personally, can make use of this experience and, in the long term, obtain a recognized diploma or certificate of continuing education. They may request that this experience be recognised by a panel from the higher education establishment of their choice, at all levels of study. They may therefore gain access to higher education without having the required qualifications and, possibly, obtain exemptions in order to shorten the duration of their studies.
Anyone who has a professional or training project and who wishes to enhance his or her skills in order to gain more recognition in their job, to make it easier to find a job, or to change sector, can contact the VPL advisor at the higher education institution of their choice.
They will be provided with support throughout the validation process
- In preparing the file outlining their career path
- In presenting the file to the panel which will authorise admission
The costs for this route to higher education are covered by the institution. It is therefore free of charge for the candidate.
How was the inter-university VPL platform put in place?
Originally a pilot project
In 2007: an initial pilot project was set up following the work of the Commission for Lifelong Learning (ETALV) of the Inter-university Council of the French Community (CIUF) with a view to applying VPL for admission to Master's degree programmes.
As of 2008, a coordination platform has been in place at the CIUF. It monitors the implementation of VPL and provides information to the public, as well as running a VPL observatory (creation of a dashboard and identification of indicators, recording of these indicators).
VPL advisers are present in all academies and universities.
2008-2014 an ESF project for VPL in universities
The VPL-Universities project (2008-2013) will develop this inter-university platform for VPL initiated by the CIUF and promoting lifelong learning in Europe.
The aim of this system was to
- Contribute to reducing inequalities in access to training
- Make individual rights to VPL more visible and easier to exercise
- Ensure the credibility and social legitimacy of VPL
- Implement the system at all universities
- Create a network of actors
2013, the Paysage decree
In 2013 - the Paysage decree, defining the landscape of higher education and the academic organization of studies, resulted in the Academy of Research and Higher Education (ARES): federation of French-speaking higher education institutions in Belgium. The federation is responsible for guaranteeing the various missions of higher education, research and service to the community, in accordance with the general objectives, and for encouraging collaboration between institutions.
ARES will therefore set up a specific consultation and coordination body for VPL with the aim of
- Ensuring equal opportunities and equal treatment throughout the Wallonia-Brussels Federation,
- Promoting the inter-university development of VPL (exchange of practices, training for professionals, coaches, assessment panels, etc.),
- Managing the progress of this new route to university (roadmap, recommendations, ESF monitoring),
- Measuring progress in democratization,
- Harmonising practices.
2015-2020 The ESF VPL2020 project
This project will make it possible to
- Stabilise and develop the inter-university platform,
The platforms is made up of:
- 2 representatives per university: a VPL advisor/intermediary, a VPL coordinator/referee
- For ARES: the coordinator and an academic affairs representative
- Set up a monitoring committee (administrative management).
This committee includes a VPL coordinator from each university and a representative of the university accounting services.
It monitors ESF project deliverables and financial and activity reports, and records project indicators.
It is now a question of
- Continuing to promote the development of VPL among stakeholders (public authorities, federation for socio-professional integration, private sector federations, universities, examination panels, administrative services, authorities, etc.) and ensuring the sustainability of the approach.
Two projects are underway:
- In the Walloon Region
- In the Walloon Brabant province
Partnerships to facilitate access to the various schemes for citizens
Numerous partnerships have been established with the Hautes Ecoles, social advancement, and competence validation centres both to harmonise information for the public, publicise the VPL system and to direct candidates to universities.
Actions have been carried out with FOREM, the employment office for the Walloon region and Et ACTIRIS for Brussels.
There have been few VPL partnerships with companies in French-speaking Belgium, with the notable exception of the "Collective Labour Agreement 104" scheme: a plan for the employment of older workers in companies. This agreement was made compulsory by the Royal Decree of 28 October 2012 and includes a system for the recognition of acquired competences.
How do VPL professionals work?
Although procedures are harmonised or are in the process of being harmonised within French-speaking universities (reception, support, examination panels), there are variations in the systems:
- At the University of Liège, the Université Libre de Bruxelles, and the Université Saint Louis (Brussels), one or two VPL advisers per university are responsible for accompanying the candidates
- At the University of Namur, as well as at the Catholic University of Louvain, candidates first contact a VPL representative who will then refer them to a VPL advisor (a second line of support) (UNamur, UCL except UCL-Mons and FOPA, FOPES)
- In some faculties: The Open Faculty of Economic and Social Policy (FOPES -UCL) or the Open Faculty of Adult Education (FOPA-UCL), the VPL system is fully integrated into the programme
- In other institutions, such as the University of Mons, the VPL adviser is a training adviser, and is part of the administrative department (admissions)
The VPL adviser's role is to help the candidate
- choose their course of study,
- reflect on their life trajectory,
- formalise the skills they have acquired to make them visible and assessable by an examination panel,
- put together an application,
- identify the documents to be attached to their VPL application,
- prepare for the VPL commission (assessment panel),
- complete administrative registration.
What exactly is the candidate asked to do?
The candidate is asked to prepare an application file.
This method was chosen as it appears to be the most appropriate in
- helping the candidate to put into words his or her educational, training, professional and personal experience
- proving that the body of knowledge acquired is equivalent to all or part of the knowledge and skills required to obtain the diploma in question
The file consists of 2 parts (the volume depends on the field of study and the evidence provided by the candidate).
- Part 1 is a sort of "extended CV" and includes documentation on the experience to be recognised:
- any experience for which the applicant is requesting recognition must be demonstrable. (original documents quantifying the duration and type of experience (employment contract, employer's certificate, job description, invoices, etc.).
- Part 2 is designed as a portfolio of competences:
- a written work describes the activities to be recognised and the skills acquired.
How do the examination panels work?
The procedures followed by the examination panels are set out in the internal regulations of the institutions. Examination panels are autonomous in their decision-making.
They consist of:
- the director of the entity,
- members of the teaching staff,
- the VPL adviser.
Using the application file and sometimes a test, the examination panel verifies the candidate's acquisition of competences according to the following criteria:
- their ability to successfully complete a course of study,
- their needs in relation to the graduate profile,
- program references (prerequisite),
- the candidate's experience (including years of successful study or foreign or private degree).
In making their decision, they will look at the following:
- the degree of experience and professional maturity demonstrated by the candidate,
- their degree of autonomy and responsibility,
- their synthesis and communication skills,
- the relevance of their choice of examples of professional experience with regard to the competence standards.
Our representatives at this meeting point out that there are still difficulties of harmonization linked to the autonomy and diversity of the examination panels.
A few figures
The figures show a marked progression in the number of candidates in the universities of French-speaking Belgium from 2008 to 2013. This progression slowed between 2015 and 2017, but remained relatively stable.
Analysis and perspectives
In Belgium, a clear distinction must be made between the recognition and the validation of prior learning.
Here, VPL is a recognition system rather than a certification system, unlike in France and Luxembourg.
VPL in Belgium does not lead to diplomas, only access to higher education and/or exemption from certain courses. It also makes validation of certain learning units possible through equivalence with previous education or experience.
As in all the European programmes for the recognition of experience acquired in higher education, whether for the purposes of recognition or certification, the process remains complex and demanding for the candidate. In this sense, the support role is central to the candidate’s success and should be further thought out and developed.
In all European countries that have adopted such programmes, VPL is regarded as central to the development of lifelong training.
The programme was designed with a view to reducing inequalities in access to higher education and consequently increasing the qualification rate of the active population in managerial positions, but is still far from achieving these objectives.
However, its development and continuing growth in higher education in Europe is rich in lessons for the reception, support and training of adults in universities or colleges, particularly at a time when European ambitions for lifelong learning are moving towards adult education as a fluid pathway, with a greater mix between formal and non-formal learning.
There are many possible forms of collaboration between institutions in the different European countries. VPL professionals, with their diverse range of experience in recognition of prior learning and, collaborations which will open up the development of innovative pathways to carry out this ambition to adapt higher education to the legitimate expectations and needs of adults.
 French Community of Belgium, Decree defining higher education, favouring its integration in the European Higher Education Area and refinancing universities" of March 31, 2004.
 The Académie de Recherche et d'Enseignement Supérieur (ARES) is the federation of French-speaking higher education institutions in Belgium. Its role is to ensure the overall coordination of their activities and to encourage the development of collaborations between them.
 Actiris is the Regional Employment Office in Brussels. It is responsible for implementing Brussels' employment policy and ensuring the proper functioning of the labour market in the Brussels-Capital Region. To this end, Actiris offers a wide range of services to both companies and jobseekers.