Everyone agrees that the skills that people gain outside formal education are important, and that ways should be found to communicate their value to potential employers and the gatekeepers of further and higher education. But despite this consensus, only four countries in the European Union have systems in place to recognise and validate informal and non-formal learning. The Commission wants governments to put that right by 2015, a commitment currently being considered by the Council of Ministers.
The qualifications that people obtain at school or during further and higher education usually have a recognised value at the national level. The situation is more complicated when learning takes place outside these formal settings, whether in courses organised by employers or civil society groups (non-formal learning) or simply through life or work experience (informal learning).
Someone may gain significant skills in computing or project management through their work or volunteering, but without a system in place to recognise and validate that learning, it may not count when they apply for a new job or to begin a new phase of formal education.
The latest EU survey, carried out in 2010, shows that only France, Finland, the Netherlands and Portugal have highly-developed validation systems in place. Another seven states have either a national system in its initial phase or a well-established but partial system of validation in one or more sectors.
While this leaves a lot of work to do, the Commission considers it a good starting point for completing the picture. “We have a critical mass to say that it is possible, it is feasible and it is worth doing,” says Pierre Mairesse, head of lifelong learning in the Commission's education directorate.
The other reason for moving now is that EU states are implementing national qualification frameworks for formal education. This involves defining qualifications, making sure validation systems are in place and that they connect to the European qualifications framework. “We think it is a good time to say: when you do that, please don't forget to validate skills and qualifications that are acquired outside schools and universities,” says Mairesse.
Even with this work already in progress, the 2015 deadline will be hard for some states to meet. “It is quite challenging for those countries that haven't started implementing yet,” says Anni Karttunen, a policy specialist at the Savo Consortium for Education in Kuopio, Finland. Both political will and resources are required to introduce systems on time. “I'm not so sure that all countries in the EU have that political will,” she says. “It's not only that education providers start doing it, but it also requires a lot of financing and a lot of co-operation between different social stakeholders.”
As well as allowing people to seek validation for a particular learning experience, the Commission proposal also asks governments to offer people a skills audit that will assess and document their capabilities, however they were acquired, giving them the best possible chance in the jobs market. A few countries have such audits, but for most it will be something new. “That could also be a bit challenging for member states,” says Mairesse.
Having validation systems in place is not the end of the story. In higher education, for example, the Finnish experience has been that perceptions about the value of prior learning linger long after it has been brought into the mainstream.
“We have had a competence-based system in vocational adult education since 1995 and there are still [university] teachers who think that what they teach goes,” says Karttunen. “In that respect 2015 is not realistic, because the attitude change cannot happen that fast. Mechanisms can be put in place, but for them to work 100% may take another 20 years.”
Ian Mundell is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.