A whole lot of questions and much reservation were raised by participants in the conference, but also interest in how to start working with qualifications frameworks. We have to boost our self-esteem in the non-formal sector – and get on working, the two hosts of NVL and EAEA said at the end of the conference.
In her welcome speech Antra Carlsen, head coordinator of the NVL, pointed to the variety of countries and the interesting mix of sections and institutions among participants. In his key-note speech Jens Bjornavold from CEDEFOP confirmed the view of the host:
“I am very happy to see so many new people at this conference. Usually I meet the same people on these occasions. But the participants’ list is much broader this time,” he said.
This is strongly supported by the facts. Among the 130 participants 35 European countries were represented – due to the fact that invitation was sent out according to EAEA-membership criteria, not defining Europe as EU, but according to membership of the European Council.
Especially striking was participation from the Balkans, including Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo. Also a high number of former Soviet republics were present: Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Belarus, Uzbekistan and the three Baltic countries.
The majority of participants represented organizations of the non-formal sector for the first time gathered to discuss national qualifications frameworks and European Qualifications Framework. This was the reason why the other host, Sue Waddington chairperson of the EAEA, called it a unique gathering. In addition to the third sector a number of government officials, EU officials and people from universities and research institutes were present.
Even before the welcome speeches the conference opened with a Question Session. In groups participants discussed and noted down questions related to the conference theme.
All questions were both posted on billboards and distributed on print demonstrating that some participants wanted more knowledge on the topic. Many participants had reservations and anxieties towards qualifications frameworks. And some just wanted to know how to get started with the work in the best way.
Among the skeptical questions was:
• Are QF’s just theoretical, academic, bureaucratic concepts living their own life, or do they play a role in the people’s lives and the development of societies?
• Are there empirical evidences that NQF’s support mobility and employability?
• Is it necessary and is it possible to formalize non-formal education and do we want it?
• Will QF’s make non-formal learning reduce its diversity, and is that desirable?
But questions like this were another part of the picture:
• When do we start using the chances EQF offers adult education?
The long list of key-note speakers no doubt answered most of the factual questions and presented ideas and advices on how to get started.
In several sessions invited speakers, EU-representatives and other participants tried to calm the anxieties and convince others that QF’s are an opportunity for non-formal adult education and that the problems are not insurmountable.
Jens Bjornavold tried to ensure the conference that diversity will not be reduced: “The outcome approach should allow for diversity.”
Carlo Scatoli from the EU Commission, DG Education and Culture, stressed that the national qualifications frameworks per definition refer to formal qualifications:
“But we distinguish between the process of learning and the qualification. So there is no need to be concerned about of formalization of non-formal adult education.
The QF’s are meant to cover all qualifications. All learning may be incorporated, but it is for the learners to decide if he or she wants to be validated,” he said.
A colleague of Carlo Scatoli, Martina Ni Cheallaigh, argued that the QF’s will increase the possibility for low-skilled people to have their qualifications validated: “Validation is the key to linking the non-formal system with the formal,” she said.
Maybe more convincing to many participants than the words of officials and experts were the clear cut recommendations from people of the non-formal sector in small countries like Ireland, Austria and Armenia. Even though Aram Avagyan in his presentation had described the numerous problems of the process in Armenia, his answer to questions of concern was:
“I am sure the benefits outweigh the costs. An NQF is what we need. It is not a show for others. It is an investment in the future, and we will see the benefits in 20 years.”
On the second day of the conference time was allowed for open space discussions about key questions, and in the afternoon Gina Ebner, general secretary of EAEA, and Antra Carlsen, tried to summarize the written input from these group discussions – and from the rest of the conference.
From the first slide they addressed the anxieties and reservations head on. They did not pose the question, if non-formal adult learning would benefit from qualifications framework, but how they could benefit. And the brief version of the answer was a call, maybe a wakeup call, to the actors of the sector:
• Improve the practice!
• Boost your self-esteem!
Following this they sketched both benefits and drawbacks. They then went on to the next steps among which were: awareness raising, conceptualizing and planning, examine what then non-formal sector can offer in relation to quality assurance. And they stressed the importance of a bottom-up process.
Noting the reservations against the non-formal sector from different stakeholders they said that all learning programs should have the right to be linked to NQF’s. And they presented a list of learning activities that according to conference participants might remain outside validation.
Finally Gina Ebner and Antra Carlsen showed a long list of ideas from the groups on how to raise awareness of the value and importance of NQF’s. A few of them were:
• Mixing different interest groups in common working groups
• Gathering examples from learners, because their experience is important
• The NGO’s effort of networking, advocacy and campaigning in cooperation with the state
• EU funding of mobility, peer learning twinning, best practice sharing and technical project help
The last bullet on the slides was the potential tasks of EAEA. It was not an exhaustive list, but Gina Ebner and Sue Waddington called on the participants to send in more suggestions. Both the EAEA and the NVL promised to continue to make validation, the national qualifications frameworks and the European Qualifications Framework a priority.
Michael Voss and Trine Bendix Knudsen