Qualifications and skills recognition: Increasing opportunities, building fairer societies

The European Year of Skills is about helping people acquire the right skills and helping employers find the right people. In her annual State of the Union speech in September 2022, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, raised her concerns about the difficulties employers in Europe face in finding enough people with the right skills to meet the demands of modern economies, including the changes brought by digitalisation and the green transition. 

Europe does not have enough plumbers and pipe fitters, nurses, system analysts and software developers, welders and flame cutters, lorry drivers, or civil engineers.  

Another reason is simple demography. Our continent’s working population is both ageing and shrinking. In 2019, approximately 65% of the EU’s people were of working age. By 2070, it is predicted that only 55 % will be. Such pressures undermine Europe’s global competitiveness and hinder growth. Social provision, such as pensions, is threatened.

Managed migration of people from outside the Union into Europe who possess the right skills can help fill this gap. At the same time, Europe is competing with other world regions to encourage such people to come to work here. 

And yet, one component in easing migration is often overlooked, and this is recognition of qualifications. President von der Leyen said, “As a first step, we need to speed up and facilitate the recognition of qualifications of third country nationals.  This will make Europe more attractive for skilled workers…”.

Recognising the qualifications and skills of people from outside the Union will help Europe to find the right people to plug critical gaps in the labour market.  Migration is increasing, and the historically high number of people now living outside their countries of origin means that qualifications and skills recognition has never been so important.

And yet, the evidence is that, too often, migrants are over-qualified for the posts they fill, and that their qualifications are not sufficiently recognised, requiring them to repeat learn or repeat train, quite wastefully.  

Significant numbers of the people legally migrating to the EU come from its neighbouring countries.  The European Training Foundation (ETF), an EU agency with a unique mandate to work with 25 such countries, helps institutions and organisations to reform their education and training and labour market systems in a range of fields. 

Michael Graham, ETF expert, explains that while formal qualifications do not cover all the skills a person possess, they perform a vital signalling function.  “Qualifications are not the only factor in determining quality of outcome of migration for the receiving country and the migrant, but they are an important one. They perform the vital function of attesting the knowledge and skills that a person has demonstrated in formal assessments,” he says.

“The European Year of Skills gives us an opportunity to highlight the contribution that fair and efficient qualifications recognition can make in supporting Europe’s transition to a greener, more digital and inclusive future.”

When qualifications are carried abroad, he identifies the two elements that need to be in place to maximise the benefits to the parties. “One is modernising their education and training systems, especially their qualification systems, so that countries have qualifications fit for recognition. Ensuring that in the EU we have the systems to recognise people’s qualifications and properly use their skills is the other.”

These two components can be said to be partly in place. On the first, Graham says, “In our partner countries, there is progress in building better qualification systems. The main instrument which holds together the complex organism that is a qualifications system – laws, governance, stakeholders, quality assurance – is the National Qualification Framework, or NQF.  Most of ETF’s partner countries have reformed their systems so that they function more effectively, producing increased numbers of quality-assured qualifications. But the ETF and its partners acknowledge the need to speed up and develop new qualifications, as well as modernise and implement qualification system tools such as databases.”

Internationally, qualifications frameworks can be linked to facilitate comparison and eventual recognition of individual qualifications.  The ETF already encourages this process by supporting partner countries in developing NQFs that are both compatible and comparable with the European Qualification Framework (EQF).  Earlier this year, the ETF and Ukraine cooperated to produce a report that analysed the comparability of the EQF and Ukraine’s NQF.  It marked an important step in facilitating the recognition of qualifications and skills between EU member states and non-member states, and its publication was undeniably timely given the influx of Ukrainians entering the EU as a consequence of the Russian aggression.  The ETF also created the Ukrainian Resource Hub to help Ukrainian refugees access education and training and find work. A fundamental aspect of the Hub was the functionality enabling EU organisations and companies to better understand Ukrainian qualifications. 

Graham also encourages take-up by neighbouring countries of other EU instruments. “If our neighbours adopt EU tools and systems like ESCO  (European Skills, Competences and Occupations classification), which supports job and learning matching, and adapt their qualifications databases to incorporate the EU’s European Learning model, all parties will benefit from using more comparable data on qualifications, digital credentials and accredited providers. This will provide information useful in making recognition decisions.”

ETF proposes its own contribution, a network of national qualifications databases, which would enable countries to access information on EU qualifications and fast-forward the developments and improvements of their own qualification systems. This would enhance the comparability of qualifications, and strengthen trust between EU and neighbouring countries, thereby assisting recognition decisions.

As for the process of recognition, the systems used to recognise higher education (HE) qualifications are easier and more internationally integrated than those that recognise vocational education and training (VET) qualifications.

Graham notes that HE is advantaged by the presence of international agreements, such as the Lisbon Recognition Convention, which sets rules for recognition of HE qualifications. It is in turn guided, monitored and implemented by the network of recognition centres called ENIC-NARIC.  ENIC (European Network of Information Centres) and NARIC (National Academic Recognition Information Centres) form a cohesive network of qualification recognition centres (QRCs) that develops and shares tools and knowledge on recognition of HE qualifications.

There is no comparable body to do likewise for VET qualifications. While some of the ENICs or NARICs do handle recognition in VET, not all do, and the tools and information available are less developed. VET is also more country system-specific which adds a layer of complexity that complicates comparability for experts assessing foreign qualifications.  

Graham says, “It’s entirely understandable we have this situation. HE programmes and qualifications are more alike globally, and in Europe the Bologna Process encourages this convergence, so we have compatibility and relatively easy comparability of the qualifications awarded by universities. This is not the case with VET, but the ENIC-NARIC network knows this and some members are seeking to extend its remit more systemically to VET, which is good news.”

He adds that ETF recently conducted a mapping of qualifications recognition centres in the EU and partner countries and found a growing focus on VET recognition and interest in this joined-up approach.

If recognition can be made more responsive and cohesive, the benefits to all are there. Graham notes that while there have not been many studies on the direct link between holding a qualification that is recognised by the receiving country and the benefits that then flow to the individual migrant, those that have been carried out – he cites German and Swedish surveys - are unambiguous in demonstrating the gains. These are: more effective job matching, higher salaries and greater job satisfaction. Good all round for the receiving economy, employer, and the worker.

There remains the contentious issue of “brain-drain”, meaning the steady stream of skilled, qualified people from the home country abroad. Graham says “It’s an unfortunate idiom or image. Politically powerful, but not accurate”.  He cites an ETF study on the Western Balkans that showed an insufficient deployment of people’s skills in their home countries. “For them staying at home is the brain waste – a waste of their talents - while migration might give them access to better employment and career opportunities”, he suggests. 

Recognition, as in the German and Swedish cases, plays its part by limiting “brain waste” for the individual.  In addition, there are the immediate gains to the sending countries including higher levels of remittances sent home while the migrant lives and works in the EU. If a migrant returns to the country of origin with a qualification acquired in the EU (and useful work experience), recognition in their home country supports brain circulation.

For the ETF, the European Year of Skills has placed recognition of qualifications and validation of skills centre stage and Graham notes the tangibles and intangibles. “Efficient recognition – accurately evaluating a third country citizen’s qualification – not only benefits Europe’s economy but also creates societies that are inclusive and integrated.  Graham concludes, “The ETF, as a leading authority on the fundamental future importance of skills and vocational education, will continue to provide support to the Commission to encourage greater cooperation and collective action regarding recognition.  Our goal for these challenging times ahead is to create a system based on the fundamental European value of fairness for everyone.”

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