Do national qualifications frameworks work?

Have we oversold the value of national qualifications frameworks?

In the past 10 years, the international community has developed qualifications frameworks at a feverish pace. Despite the rapid growth of national and regional frameworks throughout Asia and the Pacific, there is still limited evidence to suggest they improve learning and recognition outcomes or support the mobility of students.

This is a major concern, particularly for UNESCO, given its mission to build national capacities for evidence-based policies in higher education. I must also ask how these policies advance the global Education 2030 Agenda, as encapsulated in Sustainable Development Goal Four's call "to promote inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all".

In its global inventory, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning found that over 150 countries around the world now have national qualifications frameworks or NQFs. However, the evidence base for such policies remains fragile, particularly in developing member states in Asia-Pacific with limited capacity for implementing existing policy guidelines and building diverse stakeholder buy-in.

ASEAN framework

Initiatives such as the European Union’s Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN Region and the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area Economic Cooperation Support Programme provided support for the development of NQFs, including national workshops and support for the ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework.

In parallel, EU member states have not yet fully referenced their national qualification systems against the European Qualifications Framework, a process that was to be completed in 2010.

This underscores three broad concerns:
  • • The complex challenge of building state capabilities;
  • • Ongoing implementation gaps of well-intentioned reforms around NQFs; and
  • • How best to measure the value of such policies in the context of the new Agenda for Sustainable Development to promote inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all (Education 2030 – Sustainable Development Goal Four or SDG4).
Common concerns and challenges

For the past two years, UNESCO Bangkok has worked to address these issues through workshops, expert meetings and formal consultations throughout Asia and the Pacific. The findings and national case studies show common concerns and challenges, especially related to the perceived value of NQFs.

There is widespread agreement that an NQF can serve as an important mechanism to convene diverse partners and stakeholders in higher education and promote the use of learning outcomes to better respond to learners’ diversity and needs. The perceived benefits also appear to promote related outputs such as bringing conceptual order and agreement about what constitutes a ‘national qualification’.

A related problem is that there is currently little evidence to show how NQFs benefit learners in Asia-Pacific.

A high-level participant at last year's annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Education Research Institutes Network gave voice to some of these concerns.

“The use of NQFs in qualifications recognition, NQF referencing projects and regional qualifications frameworks is a new policy area," said the expert, who was invited by UNESCO to provide anonymous feedback, "and it is [our country’s] view that there is little evidence to suggest that the development of NQFs, NQF referencing projects and the development of regional qualifications frameworks actually leads to better recognition outcomes and greater mobility for students and workers.”

It's a worrying sentiment, particularly since developing countries in Asia and Pacific, including small island developing states, have invested significant time and resources towards developing NQFs.

The Sydney Statement from August 2016 suggested that many quality tools have been developed within the Asia-Pacific region that promise to enhance mobility and employability: however, more research and evidence is needed to assess how these tools benefit students.

This includes a need to better understand the value and coherence of quality tools in international recognition, quality assurance and qualifications frameworks and how, or if, they advance the Education 2030 – SDG4 agenda.

Building mutual trust

Improving our understanding of such links can support the achievement of SDG4 and it was with this in mind that UNESCO Bangkok organised its latest capacity-building effort in Asia and the Pacific, a workshop in Apia, Samoa from 20-24 March 2017, and this brought together representatives from more than 10 Pacific Island member states, higher education stakeholders from government and industry and quality assurance agencies to localise and assess the value of implementing NQFs.

The findings were instructive for the wider region and beyond.

In Samoa, for example, the value of the Samoa Qualifications Framework is assessed through tracer studies of recent graduates, employer surveys and gathering anecdotal evidence from providers of tertiary education. Such practices are fundamental for promoting and achieving SDG4. They are also rare.

Strengthening the evidence base for quality assurance mechanisms is important for building mutual trust in qualifications. By challenging the value of NQFs as a tool – not as an endpoint – we can continuously rethink and reassess how to promote quality education and flexible lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Wesley Teter is a senior consultant with UNESCO Bangkok's Section for Educational Innovation and Skills Development and a visiting scholar, Master of Public Administration Program in Public Policy and Public Administration, Mahidol University, Thailand (2017).