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Recognition of prior learning or validation of non-formal and informal learning

By Baiba Ramina

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In nowadays changing and dynamic world, a person has many opportunities to develop and change the life quality. This especially applies to skills, knowledge and competences. Each individual usually has a wide variety of skills acquired in different learning environments: school, workplace, courses, working on the farm, reading books or helping in the garage. Sometimes it is possible or necessary to turn a hobby into a profession. For example, you know and like to keep bees, and the moment comes when you have the opportunity to turn it into a profession, proving your knowledge and skills. When returning from another country, where a person has worked as a welder, it is possible to obtain a certificate in the home country, proving one's competence and skills. If you have experience to babysit or nurse the sick, you can turn these competences to qualification of a babysitter or carer. 

This possibility is provided by procedures for recognition of prior learning or validation of non-formal and informal learning, which are currently becoming more and more popular and are being developed or implemented in many countries in Europe and beyond. 

Recognition of prior learning (RPL) or validation of non-formal and informal learning (VNFIL): developments and trends in the EU

The first beginnings of the RPL/VNFIL discussion in the Eu date back to 1995, when a Commission’s White Paper on Teaching and Learning highlighted the need to devise validation systems and introduce new, more flexible ways of acknowledging skills. 

Validation of non-formal and informal learning is part of European education and labour market policies, and has been followed with the Council Recommendation on the validation of non-formal and informal learning, 2012 and supported with the European guidelines for validation of non-formal and informal learning (Cedefop, 2015, 2023).   

The recommendation informs about the necessity to develop validation as a tool for promoting lifelong learning. It indicates that validation of learning outcomes, namely knowledge, skills and competences acquired through non-formal and informal learning, can play an important role in enhancing employability and mobility, as well as increasing motivation for lifelong learning, particularly in the case of the socio-economically disadvantaged or the low qualified.  

Based on the Council Recommendation, the EU Member States have been expected to have systems for RPL/VNFIL set by 2018 and have been reporting about the system-level developments to the Advisory Group for the European Qualifications Framework. Member States are invited to include four consecutive elements in arrangements for the validation: 

Identification, Documentation, Assessment, Certification

EU countries have different development stages and types – most of them have sectoral arrangements in the education and training systems (VET in particular, but not only) and less so in the labour market and the third sector. A longstanding and well-developed system is in place in France, where practically all qualifications can be obtained through the validation system. Monitoring and update of VNFIL in Europe is carried out by the European inventory which was endorsed by the Council Recommendation and works together with the European guidelines as a tool to support countries in developing and implementing validation arrangements. The European inventory on VNIL is a regularly updated tool to systematically collect quality information on validation across Europe. It is organised by Cedefop in cooperation with the European Commission and the European Training Foundation (ETF). 

The Cedefop inventory reports cover the validation landscape in 33 countries (EU-28, EFTA countries and Türkiye). Four ETF partner countries were included already in the 2018 inventory (Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Türkiye) and two Central Asia countries (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) are included in the last round – to be completed by the end of 2023. 

Developments and trends in Central Asia 

The regional synthesis report prepared by the PPMI, 3s and Ockham during the inception phase of DARYA (September 2022–January 2023) emphasizes that the Central Asian countries (except for Turkmenistan) have already a legal framework for validation in place, and validation is still gaining trust in the region in terms of being seen and treated as a ‘normal’ route to acquiring qualifications. Experience from Kazakhstan and Tajikistan shows that public attitudes towards validation may change due to the increasing needs for it, i.e. decreasing number of students (an effect from Covid-19) or increasing number of labour migrants returning home because of the Ukraine war.  

The thematic seminar 'Recognition/validation of prior learning – Stakeholder engagement and governance of qualifications systems' organised as part of DARYA qualifications capacity building and peer learning programme, has informed about the newest developments on RPL/VNIL in Central Asian countries.

In the Central Asian countries, a lot of attention is paid to the arrangement of national legislation. 

In terms of the latest developments in Kazakhstan, the recently adopted law (4.07.2023) on VET qualifications will bring novelties regarding RPL. According to the law, Atameken will be in charge of the accreditation of the certification centres for professions with voluntary certification. Finally, the law regulates validation of a skill or skills of a certain professional qualification and clearly states that learning outcomes obtained through non-formal and informal education are recognised based on relevant professional standards, and in their absence, qualification requirements. 

In Tajikistan, the validation procedure is regulated by the Law of the Republic of Tajikistan ‘On Adult Education’ (adopted in 2017). Professional competence obtained by adults in the process of mastering basic and continuing programmes is recognised and approved by the educational institution that issues a certificate. 

Central Asian countries have made a lot of effort in developing training centres for the validation.  

In Kazakhstan, national stakeholders have highlighted independent certification centres that certify whether or not a person has knowledge, skills, and competences to acquire a professional qualification. A long expected law on VET qualifications has been recently adopted differentiating between mandatory and voluntary certification, i.e. professions will be subject to mandatory certification provided that this is prescribed in the corresponding sectoral laws of the country. Mandatory certification concerns professions such as doctors, notaries, lawyers, professional auditors and means that in addition to their diploma these professionals have to pass exams of a mandatory certification in order to start working in their field. 

Several independent certification centres have been established in Kyrgyzstan (according to industry branch) where VNFIL procedures have been piloted. The demand for validation in the country is high due to the increasing number of migrants, in particular ‘circular’ (returning) migrants. In accordance with the new law, citizens, including migrants, citizens from low-income segments of the population, people with disabilities and other people who find themselves in a difficult life situation, will have the opportunity to formalise their qualifications, increase their chances for employment, and also enter the international labour market.  

Validation in Tajikistan is implemented for short-term training programmes by the State institution Adult Education Centre and its branches across the regions of Tajikistan. Validation practice has shown that it is necessary to improve the existing validation mechanism through revision of the validation procedure, prescribing specific stages and steps for validating professional competences by integrating validation into the qualifications system. 

Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Uzbekistan No 616 of 09/30/2021 'On additional measures to further improve the system of development of professional skills and knowledge' has approved the Charter and structure of the Institute of Labour, regulations on sectoral councils for the development of professional skills, knowledge and the 'Regulations on Qualification Assessment Centres'. Today there are 27 qualification assessment centres established in Uzbekistan. 

Another area intensively developed in Central Asia is professional standards and national qualification systems. 

Kyrgyzstan currently undergoes a process of developing professional standards and a roadmap related to it.  

Uzbekistan plans important changes in its national system of qualifications through the integration of labour market and VET system and developing sectoral qualification frameworks.

Challenges and priorities for further work in Central Asia 

Based on findings from the mapping reports of the five Central Asian countries (prepared during the inception phase of DARYA) as well as on experiences made during the RPL/VNFIL capacity building and peer learning session in Almaty (Kazakhstan), several challenges have been identified for successful implementation of validation. 

National qualifications systems are unique for each country and validation of non-formal and informal learning is an essential component of the system. Therefore, linking qualification frameworks to validation arrangements must be foreseen as one of the priorities.  

One of the challenges is the use of learning outcomes approaches. 

Today neither the qualifications framework nor the educational/occupational standards are conceivable without using the language of learning outcomes. Therefore, Central Asian countries should develop competence in using learning outcomes focusing on the design, delivery and assessment of education and training. Learning outcomes should be used as reference points for validation, so it is necessary to define clear and measurable learning outcomes that align with the skills and competences to be validated.  

A significant challenge is the lack of comparable and comprehensible qualification structures.  

The knowledge, skills and competence offered for validation may not have been acquired in one's own country, but also in neighbouring countries, or in even more distant countries. Therefore, countries need to develop comparable and comprehensible qualification structures and qualifications based on learning outcomes in order to ensure a fair and beneficial validation process for individuals. 

The challenge today is the use of all four elements in the arrangements for the validation of non-formal and informal learning: identification, documentation, assessment and certification. Assessment and certification still have higher priority in Central Asian countries than identification and documentation. 

The next challenge follows from the previous one as 'the individual at the centre' is one of the main approaches in the recognition process, especially in Europe.

Therefore, it is important to emphasise that validation must be supported by appropriate guidance and counselling and the authorities responsible for the validation should prioritise the development of these services to individuals. 

Another future priority for validation is the development of the professional competences of the staff involved in the validation process across all relevant sectors to ensure that the staff responsible for assessing non-formal and informal learning have the necessary expertise and knowledge in the relevant fields.  

And last but not the least, the challenge of having a certificate issued after a successful validation process.  

National authorities and certification centres should take the necessary measures to promote popularity and visibility of these certificates among employers, certificate holders and other relevant stakeholders. Also, the template and content of certificates must be carefully considered so that they provide the greatest benefit to the certificate holders. 

How is DARYA addressing this area and supporting/planning to support the countries in Central Asia? 

Developing the validation of non-formal and informal learning fits well into the overarching aim of DARYA project – to support the post-Covid recovery in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan by developing the quality and inclusiveness of education, training and employment systems in the region. It should be noted that validation should not be viewed in isolation from other areas of DARYA project, as they include and complement each other; thus validation of non-formal and informal learning will be discussed closely with other DARYA issues. 

One of the areas which DARYA thematic Module 2 'Stakeholder-driven flexible and permeable approaches to qualifications at national and regional levels to allow equal opportunities for all' covers refers to familiarisation, peer-learning and capacity-building activities, including in relation to validation of non-formal and informal learning, taking place outside the formal education system. 

Therefore, it can be confidently said that all activities planned in Module 2 support and influence the validation of non-formal and informal learning and support the active engagement of national stakeholders in improving their existing RPL/VNFIL approaches or policy implementation. Activities aim to help stakeholders to establish links with nationally agreed standards and national qualifications frameworks; develop guidance activities and guidance professionals; strengthen RPL/VNFIL quality assurance processes and establish sustainable financing mechanisms. 

There are two activities planned within DARYA Module 2, which are devoted to the implementation of RPL/VNFIL: 

  • To help countries evaluate national achievements in implementing validation, e.g. through the use of an ETF self-assessment tool/questionnaire for RPL/VNFIL. The tool will be adjusted to the Central Asian context which will be designed as the main outcome of developing a pathway for RPL/VNFIL system with engagement of a wide circle of national stakeholders. The self-assessment questionnaire will be used by national working groups to inform on the current state of play and plans in the area of RPL/VNFIL as well as reflect on pointers for further work.   
  • To pilot the validation of non-formal and informal learning in selected sectors in at least three Central Asian countries between 2024 and 2027.
What’s there for society?

Implementing RPL/VNIL systems and procedures provides support to the employer in attracting skilled employees and to the individual in certifying his/her acquired skills, knowledge and competences. As this is a new approach in many countries, building trust in the validation system and defining the benefits for the different actors involved is crucial.  

The EU Recommendation on validation states that various key stakeholders have an important role in facilitating opportunities for non-formal and informal learning such as employers’ organisations, trade unions, chambers of industry, commerce and skilled crafts, national entities, employment services, youth organisations, education and training providers, as well as civil society organisations. Thinking about the future, employers’ associations should actively support the involvement of employers in raising the quality and prestige of professional qualifications, encouraging both young people, job seekers and also workers to acquire professional qualifications and the skills necessary for the labour market in different ways, highly valuing all qualifications, including those obtained through RPL/VNFIL.  

What is validation for the individual? It is the potential to value the competence and to have equal opportunities for assessing and validate it regardless of the time, place and mode of acquiring the knowledge and skills. 

RPL/VNFIL enables individuals to realise their career and to plan their personal development. Various groups will benefit from validation such as individuals who have been out of the education system for a long time, individuals who lack formal qualifications, adults returning to education and training, unemployed people to demonstrate their competence to prospective employers, individuals willing to improve existing qualifications, individuals getting non formal learning or training in the workplace. The validation of skills promotes social inclusion and, by ensuring the visibility of certain skills, can also provide greater opportunities for disadvantaged groups – the unemployed, the early school leavers, low-skilled adults and third-country nationals. 

What is validation for society? It improves access to education for people who are socially disadvantaged by broadening their opportunities to acquire a qualification and to compete in the labour market. 

It will make individuals a useful resource for society and it will allow them to take a more active part in their community.