Continental Qualifications Framework enters the next phase

The implementation of the second phase of the African Continental Qualifications Framework (ACQF-II) has commenced as part of a grand plan to support the comparability, quality and recognition of qualifications between countries – including higher education qualifications.

Despite progress since the start of the development process, the framework will require commitment, collaboration and coordination among African countries and regional bodies.

This has been emphasised by the Association of African Universities’ project officer for higher education, Marie Eglantine Juru, in response to questions from University World News.

She said developing and implementing an African Qualifications Framework is a complex process and involving aligning various educational systems, standards and practices across African countries will likely take several years “as it requires sustained commitment, financial resources and political support from African governments, educational institutions and higher education-related regional organisations”.

The effort, however, will be worth it.

According to Juru, higher education in Africa is an engine for driving the socio-economic development and transformation of the continent and an operational qualifications framework can play a crucial role in unlocking this potential by providing common ground and a framework for recognising and comparing qualifications across different countries and institutions and, hence, facilitating the mobility of students and labour.

Said Juru: “A continental qualifications framework will provide a common set of standards and guidelines for qualifications across different African countries. It will facilitate the recognition and comparability of qualifications, making it easier for institutions and employers to evaluate, compare and recognise academic qualifications.

“This will translate into a more transparent and consistent system that enhances the mobility of students and labour within Africa and beyond.”

She said that there are also employability and workforce development benefits as a continental qualifications framework will contribute to the alignment of the academic programmes and the needs of the labour market.

The qualifications framework will also guide higher learning institutions in designing curricula that respond to the needs of the market, hence improving the employability of graduates and supporting the development of a skilled workforce that meets the demands of the African socio-economic arena.

Moreover, the framework will result in international recognition and competitiveness: a continental qualifications framework will increase the visibility of African qualifications and enhance the international recognition and competitiveness of African higher education.

This may translate into new possibilities for international collaborations, partnerships and research opportunities, eventually increasing Africa’s participation in the global knowledge economy, Juru said.

Development process

The process to develop the ACQF was launched in September 2019 by the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As a policy initiative, the AFQF contributes to the development of national and regional qualifications frameworks (NQFs and RQFs).

Some of the objectives of the continental framework are to facilitate the recognition of learning from different contexts, support the mobility of learners and workers and create a common education and qualifications space.

The ACQF-II, rolling out under a project titled, ‘Support to the implementation of the African Continental Qualifications Framework (ACQF)’, has been running since earlier in 2023 and will conclude at the end of December 2026. It builds on the policy and technical basis developed by the first phase of the ACQF-I project (2019-22).

The main outcomes envisaged under the latest programme cycle are that countries with national qualification frameworks (NQFs) which are ready for implementation will be invited to use the ACQF as a reference.

Upon referencing, countries can use ACQF levels for newly issued qualifications documents and qualifications databases – improving the mutual alignment between NQFs.

The other outcome is developing common profiles of qualifications relevant for emerging occupations, green and digital skills and free trade in Africa; strengthening capacities at national, regional and continental levels to develop and implement qualifications frameworks and systems; and cooperate with the ACQF as well as develop and implement national qualifications frameworks in African countries.

Advisory group

The programme’s coordinator and key expert, Eduarda Castel-Branco told University World News the project works closely with the AU Commission’s division for education and has an advisory group composed of representatives of AU member states, regions and sectors.

“The Project ACQF-II is implemented by the European Training Foundation, working together with the AU Commission and the African member states and regional economic communities,” she said.

A recent statement announcing the start of the ACQF-II said the implementation team consists of experts in relevant thematic and policy domains, and who are familiar with the contextual characteristics of different African regions and countries.

According to the statement, the team will combine expertise in the domains of qualifications and credentials, qualifications frameworks and systems, recognition of prior learning (RPL), governance of NQFs, credit accumulation and transfer systems, quality assurance of qualifications, digital online registers and databases of qualifications, referencing between NQFs or RQFs and the ACQF, monitoring and evaluation of NQFs and ACQF, communication and outreach, delivery of training and capacity development programmes for stakeholders, website content management and development.

“All learning throughout life is valuable, [but] not all learning outcomes from non-formal and informal learning are visible.

“RPL policies and measures provide solutions to this gap. The RPL campaign will support [the] dissemination of information and good practice, develop technical capacities and encourage countries and regions to foster RPL policies and implementation programmes.

“The campaign links RPL with NQFs, and the role RPL plays in [the] inclusion in lifelong learning and decent work. As NQFs are instruments for lifelong learning, they support the recognition of skills acquired in non-formal and informal contexts, and a growing number of NQFs include non-formal and informal learning in their scope,” said the statement.

The initiative follows the conclusion of ACQF-I, which, among others, finalised the ACQF policy document.

Uneven development of frameworks

An ACQF-I final report of activities and outputs says NQFs in Africa are at different stages of development and implementation.

It said that, during the past three years, there has been a surge in the number of countries starting with the development of NQFs, while others are adopting the policy and legal basis, putting in place governance structures and technical tools to operationalise the NQF.

The report said that, up to now, the Southern African Development Community has been the region with the highest number of countries to do so and noted that moving from initial concepts and plans on to the NQF to the adoption of policies and instruments can be more challenging and lengthier in some countries than in others.

While, in some contexts, the national institutions benefit from enabling conditions such as the socio-economic demand for better qualifications, active social partners and technical and financial resources, in other contexts, the implementation of education and training reforms and NQF projects are adversely affected by persisting political instability and insecurity, added the report.

“Considering a total of 41 countries included in the data collected by the ACQF Mapping Study, the continent has a higher number of qualifications frameworks (approved, implementation started or implementation advanced) than other larger regions had when they enacted their overarching RQFs.

“Although 13 years separate the advent of the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) and the development of the ACQF, it is very useful to note that, when the legal base of the EQF was approved (2008), only three countries had NQFs in place and operational (France, Ireland and the United Kingdom),” it said.

What has been achieved so far?

An ACQF Mapping Study by the African Continental Qualifications Framework gives an insight into what ground has been covered so far.

The ACQF Mapping Report is titled, Towards the African Continental Qualifications Framework.

Among the RQFs, or Regional Qualifications Frameworks, the SADC was found to be the most advanced in terms of its legal, technical and institutional basis, with the SADC RQF having been approved since 2011, and reactivated in 2017.

The SADC Technical Committee on Certification and Accreditation stood out as a longstanding oversight body that has promoted the SADC RQF.

“NQFs of two SADC member states have been aligned to the SADC RQF (South Africa and Seychelles) and alignment is under way in Mauritius,” the study said.

“In ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] in October 2012, the ministers of education approved guidelines and a roadmap for implementation of NQFs and RQFs in the region in October 2013.

“In the EAC [East African Community], the East African Qualifications Framework for Higher Education (EAQFHE) was adopted by the ministers in April 2015, working in complementarity with the regional quality assurance systems. The EAQFHE has eight levels, from lower primary education to a doctorate degree.”

In the EAC, the overall coordination for the higher education section of the EAQFHE rests with the Inter-University Council for East Africa, or IUCEA, which is the custodian and governing body delegated by the EAC.

It said that, in terms of governance of NQFs, it was found that more advanced NQFs in Africa tend to be overseen by qualifications agencies.