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Higher and Vocational Education must collaborate to teach skills that fit the labour market

Isabella De Luca

An Irish Presidency Conference on Quality Assurance in Qualifications Frameworks took place in Dublin Castle on Tuesday and Wednesday, March 12 and 13.  Over 150 delegates from more than 35 countries met to discuss a wide range of issues relating to education over the two days.

The opening address was delivered by Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills, followed by Xavier Prats Monné, Deputy Director-General for Education and Culture, European Commission.

Qualifications Frameworks and Quality Assurance systems are now key features of the education and training landscape in both higher and vocational education and training.  They ensure that all education meets a high standard and that learners are awarded suitable recognition for their quality of work.  The conference looked at how policy and implementation can be co-ordinated within national systems and at a European level.  This would aid educational reform and the creation of jobs, growth and mobility for citizens.

Four key themes were explored.  These included integrating frameworks and quality assurance, using quality assurance to improve the relevance of qualifications to the labour market, facilitating the validation of formal and non-formal learning, and promoting confidence in Europe’s qualifications on a global scale.

The keynote presentation was given by Dr Jim Murray, Director of Academic Affairs at Institutes of Technology Ireland.  He spoke about the challenges outlined in the European Commission’s recent publication ‘Rethinking Education’.

Youth unemployment is approaching 23% across Europe, yet at the same time there are over 2 million work vacancies that cannot be filled.  There is therefore a growing need for education to deliver the right skills for the labour market, so as to help young people secure their economic future and enable businesses to grow and create new jobs.

Dr Murray stressed the importance of quality assurance systems and qualifications frameworks in supporting the transformation of education and training to deliver the skills necessary in the current economic climate.

Part of the solution put forward was that employers should express their skills needs and assist the bodies responsible for qualifications to make sure that these needs are reflected in qualifications.  Emphasis also emerged on the use of learning outcomes, the promotion of student­-centred learning and improving the integration of education and training systems.

Organisations represented at the conference were encouraged to look at ways of facilitating greater dialogue between the main actors in Vocational Education and Training and Higher Education.  It was advised that the common principles of quality assurance be strengthened and applied across the two sectors, and made mutually intelligible, in order to share good practices and to learn about each other’s approaches to applying learning outcomes.  This would improve programmes, generating more widespread recognition of and trust in vocational qualifications, and improving the practicality of higher education.

The possibility of integrating non-formal education into National Qualifications Frameworks was also discussed at length.  It was concluded that Member States should design or extend frameworks to accommodate quality assured qualifications arising from outside current formal systems, paving the way for better acknowledgement of the skills that can be acquired through life-learning.

National qualifications authorities and their European counterparts were advised to endorse measures that enhance mutual recognition of qualifications between Europe and the rest of the world.

The Presidency Statement based on the conclusions of the discussions was presented by Gordon Clark, Chairperson, Quality and Qualifications Ireland, in the last session of the event.  Member States and other stakeholders were encouraged to participate in related debates and the conference ended in expectation of the Commission follow-­up to ‘Rethinking Education’, in particular the European Area of Skills and Qualifications.

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