Over the past 2 to 3 decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of nations that have introduced or are planning to introduce the national qualifications framework (NQF). NQFs can either be comprehensive or partial, depending on the choice of the implementing entity. Even as there has been an explosion in the adoption of NQFs in recent years, there is little in the way of evidence regarding not just their implementation, but their impact as well. NQFs differ across nations in terms of their structure, purposes, and design. They could be loose or tight. They also differ in terms of implementation.
For example, NQFs could be driven by stakeholders, agencies or the national governments. They therefore seek to fulfill different purposes including promoting transfer, access, as well as progression, in addition to promoting lifelong learning. In this research paper, an attempt shall be made to define NQFs, in addition to examining their history. Also, the research paper shall also explore the purposes that they serve. In addition, an attempt shall be made to determine the various generations of NQFs. The development of NQFs, along with the countries that have thus far implemented them shall also be examined. The various forms of NQFs available will be assessed, in addition to evaluating the pros and cons of NQFs.
According to the OECD (2007), a national qualifications framework can be defined as a single entity that encompasses a national qualifications system. On the other hand, The Cedefop Glossary’s definition of a National Qualifications Framework is that of “An instrument for the development and classification of qualifications (e.g. at national or sectoral level) according to a set of criteria (for example, using descriptors) applicable to specified levels of learning outcomes” (2008).
A lot of countries have already introduced NQFs, with many more considering implementing the system. The main reason why countries are intent on introducing NQFs is because they are convinced that they could prove quite useful in ensuring that workers qualifications matches the social and economic needs of the country. In addition, these countries are also convinced that NQFs provide progression and flexibility for learners, possesses good quality, and are recognized globally.
On account of the pace adopted during the introduction of NQFs, it becomes quite hard to ascertain how current any list of development can be. on the other hand, the extent of NQFs globally can be categorized into three major generations as below:
These are the countries who were the pioneers in the implementation of NQFs. The implementation of NQFs began in the late 1980s up to the mid 1990s. Some of the pioneer countries include South Africa, Australia, the UK (save for Scotland), and New Zealand.
This particular generation was formed immediately after the first generation had been introduced. Member countries began to implement it in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Some of the countries that implemented the policy during this time include Malaysia, Mexico, Maldives, Mauritius, Wales, and Singapore, among others.
This is the most recent generation and is currently under consideration in such countries as Albania, Brazil, Macedonia, Romania, Slovenia, Turkey, and Zimbabwe, among others.
Initially, the introduction of the NQFs was aimed at assisting employees to compare the various qualifications in Wales, England, as well as in Northern Ireland. In South Africa, the origin of NQFs can be traced as far back as the early 1970s, during a time when labor movements were gaining popularity (Allais, 2003). During this time, black trade unions were making demands to have the living wages of their members reviewed, but employees could hear none of it. Consequently, they kept of rejecting their demands. In addition, the black trade unions in South Africa also argued that since workers were largely unskilled, as such, they were deemed to be making unjust demands. Consequently, black workers resorted to training so that they could make justifiable demands to have their wages increased by their employers.
In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the NQF grouped all qualifications that had been accredited by relevant regulatory authorities into six levels, starting with the entry level up to and including the postgraduate qualifications (Collins et al., 2009). Initially, the framework consisted of occupational or vocational qualifications like general vocational qualifications. One of the key aims of the framework was to make clear for employers, learners, as well as other interested stakeholders the suitable progression routes via the qualification system.
The framework also helped to clarify the status of individual qualification with regard to other related qualifications (for instance, vocational), in addition to demonstrating hypothesized equivalence between the three classes (Bouder, 2003). A revision of the framework in September 2004 saw the establishment of extra categories, thereby increasing the levels from 6 to 9. The need to further revise the framework led to organizing of trial, starting in November 2006 (European Communities, 2008).
Thanks to the revised framework, learners are able not only accumulate incremental knowledge, but to also transfer it as well. As a result, this has led to increased recognition and awareness of employer-led training. Plans are also underway to introduce the qualifications and credit framework (QCF) as a replacement to the NQF (European Communities, 2008). Through the new framework, employers, teachers and policy makers can assess the learner’s levels of qualifications.
Within a very short time, NQFs have evolved to become one of the most fundamental tools in national training, education, and qualification systems. Even as this phenomenon is evident globally (6), the strongest and most persistent are the European development. This is especially the case due to the ongoing European qualifications framework (EQF) since 2004.
Objectives of NQFs
NQFs are crucially involved in connecting national qualifications systems to other globally acclaimed systems such as the EQF. In addition, NQFs have been instrumental in improving national training, education, and qualifications systems. In many countries, NQFs are aimed at enabling easier understanding of national qualifications systems, both nationally as well as internationally. Also, NQFs link various components of training and education, thereby augmenting the coherence of qualification systems, as well as eases of understanding (European Communities, 2008).
In addition, NQFs enhances permeability of training and education by strengthening and clarifying the vertical and horizontal links within existing systems. This is in addition to supporting lifelong learning via the creation of visible learning pathways and by facilitating access, progression, and participation (Coles, 2006). Moreover, NQFs are known to facilitate the recognition of various types of learning outcomes as well as augmenting the link and strengthening communication between training and education in the labor market.
Besides, NQFs are also instrumental in establishing a platform for dialogue and cooperation with diverse stakeholders, not to mention that they also act as a reference point in as far as quality assurance is concerned (European Commission on Education and Training, 2009). There is need for individual countries to embrace a systematic shift in describing and defining qualification, if at all they are to fulfill the aforementioned objectives. Most countries emphasize on learning outcomes of NQFs, and this is an indication of their key role in reforming training, education, and learning. Although most of the countries have posted similar objectives, there are some that are quite identifiable.
A case in point is the national framework in Germany where stakeholders see it as an instrument that they can use to minimize conventional barriers in training and education. This can be achieved by addressing the issue of equality in both academic and vocational training. Majority of the newer Member States are already concerned that the current system, of education does not addressing the prevailing labor market needs. In this case, they are of the opinion that the frameworks could afford them a common language that facilitates better dialogue. Countries like Australia and Sweden have to consider the informal qualifications that an individual has gained during the designing stage of the frameworks (European Commission on Education and Training, 2009).
Functions of NQFs
According to Raffe (2009), there are three key types of frameworks. These are the reforming framework, the transformational framework, as well as communication frameworks. According to Raffe (2009), communication frameworks play a key role in enhancing the description of prevailing qualifications systems, in effect clarifying available alternatives for the various stakeholders, including policy makers and learners. In this case, the communication framework has been created with a view to addressing and enhancing the existing systems. The reforming framework on the other hand has proven useful in enhancing the quality and relevance of the existing systems.
The third type of framework as identified by Raffe (2009) is the transformational network. The South African framework (1994) often regarded as the first generation framework is a good example of the transformational framework as it has radically dissociated itself from past institutional practices and arrangements. In Europe, most countries have embraced the communication framework of NQFs with a view to enabling more understandable and visible training, education, and qualification systems. In addition, the framework is also aimed at clarifying the horizontal as well as physical links between various forms of qualifications.
Besides, the communication framework plays a key role in improving transparency of training, qualification and education systems. In such countries as Iceland, Poland, and Croatia, NQFs have played a reforming role of education and training systems. For these countries, the NQFs give them a chance to change the prevailing training and education. In other words, NQFs play a regulatory role whereby they directly affect the provision, design, as well as the awarding of qualifications.
Examples of countries that have already implemented the new framework underscore its important reforming role. They in clued such countries as Poland and Iceland, among others. To these countries, the NQFs are a chance for them to later the prevailing training and education, with the frameworks acting as their point of reference in these reforms (European Commission on Education and Training, 2009).
In other words, NQF can as well serve the purpose of a regulatory role in as far as the designing and allocation of qualifications is concerned. An example of this kind of framework is the qualifications and credit framework (QCF) found in Wales, Northern Ireland, and England (Bjørnåvold & Coles, 2010). In this case, the QCF establishes explicit standards for qualifications. As a result, it directly affects the design as well as the recognition of qualifications. The French framework operates in a similar manner, with the national certification committee acting as a gatekeeper whose duty is to regulate the kind of qualifications that ought to constitute the framework, in addition to the manner in which they need to be described, in line with the established criteria.
Most goals and/or functions of NQF have been designed in such a manner as to suit various training and educational requirements. For example, the NFQs in Ireland are characterized by stronger regulatory and reforming roles in certain subsystems like further vocational education, in comparison with university and general education (Collins et al., 2009). This is indicative of a less clear-cut definition between on the one hand, reforming frameworks and on the other hand, communication frameworks.
There are a number of stages involved in the development and execution of NQFs.
Conceptualization and design
This is the stage at which a country evaluates and defines the key policy objectives and rationale in as far as the future of NQF is concerned (Raffe, Ballacher & Toman, 2008). All too often, this stage leads to an outline that offers the basis for broader discussion and dissemination.
Testing and consultation
This is the stage at which the NQF proposal is tabled for discussion. The process could involve a wider range of stakeholders (Raffe et al., 2009). Majority of the countries have opted to test the proposed NQF descriptors via projects in certain identified economic areas.
This marks the official establishment of the NQF. Once adopted and established, the NQF acts as a formal agreement or decree between the various stakeholders involved (Young, 2003).
This is the stage at which institutions have to abide by the established new methods and structures. In addition, this stage ensures that the potential end users know all about the benefits and purposes of the adopted framework (Young, 2008).
Pros and Cons
NQFs systems play a key role in improving quality assurance by matching individuals’ training and education with the industry needs. To do so, Coles (2006) argues that NQFs needs to create national levels and standards for training, skills, education, as well as competences outcomes. Another way is by improving quality by ensuring that training or education provides meet the set standards. What this means is that there is need to link training providers with a regulatory system of monitoring qualifications and approval (Young, 2002). NQFs could also aid in the comparisons among the contents and levels of qualifications to ensure that they instill confidence in training and education providers, individuals and employers.
Coles (2006) further contends that NQFs promotes access to transfers and learning to training and higher education by spelling out the entry points qualifications. According to Tuck (2007), NQFs can help to address such problems as quality assurance, international recognition, consistency in standards, progression routes, the importance of user qualifications, and access to learner qualifications (Raffe, 2009).
Those economies that have implemented NQFs look forward to substantial benefits and more so in case there is a good information system providers and qualifications, and a sound quality assurance system in place. Workers and students alike stand to benefit from NQFs, with employers benefiting from trust in qualifications. On the other hand, training and education providers can look forward to more reliable design of qualifications.
Although there are enormous benefits associated with NQFs, nevertheless, some vocational and higher educational institutions are limited in the capacity and extent to which they can achieve such an integrated system. In addition, some systems of government like the Australian federal system make it difficult to implement such integrated systems (Allais, Raffe & Young, 2009). Moreover, it is also quiet hard to come up with clear descriptors that matches the desired outcomes.
Another constraint frequently encountered in the development and implementation of NQFs is that of understanding and acceptance across the different sectors and agencies of the economy. Specifically, majority of the systems encounter the ongoing difficulty of upholding user understanding and acceptance of the NQFs (Allais et al., 2009). Other economies have been also reported direct resistance from certain sectors of the economy when it comes to the integration of their qualifications with the NQFs. It is also hard to maintain diverse sectors within one NQF owing to the relative levels of qualifications and various genre qualifications involved.
An increasingly larger number of countries have now embraced the national qualification frameworks (NQFs) in large numbers in the hope that their implementation will enable them to match their educational and training skills with the job market more accurately. Case studies done on the first countries to have adopted EQFs show that these systems are instrumental in enabling a country connect its national qualifications systems with various global systems.
It is important to note that NQFs improves national training and education. In addition, NQFs facilitates better understanding of the various national as well as international qualifications among diverse stakeholders, including employers, students, and government agencies. The implementation of NQFs in different countries differs based on the nature of the framework that the country in question has adopted. In the case of a country like South Africa, adopting the transformational framework has seen it radically dissociate itself from past institutional practices and arrangements. Although there are numerous benefits that a country stands to gain by implementing NQFs, on the other hand, this system has its fair share of constraints.
For example the issue of understanding and acceptance by various agencies and sectors of the economy is worth considering. The various genres of qualifications in diverse sectors of the economy could also complicate the process of integrating a country’s national qualifications into a single NQF. There is need therefore for a country to adopt NQFs that best matches its political, economic, as well as social system. This calls for a lot of tolerance on the part of the designers of NQFs in order to ensure that they accommodate the desirable qualifications. In addition, the end users should also be involved in the designing and implementation processes so that they can input their views and opinions as well. This would help to increase acceptance.
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