National Qualifications Framework
The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture is presently engaged in creating a qualifications framework for lifelong learning in Iceland. This task follows the decision of the Icelandic Parliament when adopting a Act on upper secondary education in 2008 and on adult education in 2010, both of which carry provisions on involving the creation of a qualifications framework.
The development of the Icelandic National Qualification Framework for Iceland has gone hand in hand with the revision of the laws on education at all levels in Iceland. In hindsight one can recognize two phases of the development of the NQF as it stands today. The development of the Higher Education National Qualification Framework (NFQ) took place around the change in legislation in 2006. This resulted in a NQF that served as the foundation for the accreditation of all higher education institutions in Iceland and was revised in and republished in 2011.The later phase would be founded in the changes in legislation regarding other levels of education in Iceland in 2008 and 2010.
The Higher Education Act from 2006 brought into existence, legal requirements for all HEI´s to adhere to „a systematic description of degrees and diplomas, with emphasis general description of learning-outcomes and competencies which students have attained at each level of study.”
In 2008 laws on Pre-primary, Compulsory and Upper Secondary education were passed and in 2010 Adult Education Act followed, allowing for a revision of the other levels of education to take similar steps to develop national curriculum descriptions that support and emulate the NQF for Higher Education, allowing for differences at each level.
The Upper Secondary Education Act on provides for a new approach to design of study programmes. Education providers will from 2015 and onwards have certain autonomy when it comes to writing curricula in general education and VET. They will do this on the basis of an outcomes based approach where learning outcomes are presented in terms of a new credit system which measures the workload of the learner. The social partners will play a crucial role in informing providers about the needs for knowledge and competences in the labour market in order to make study programmes relevant and useful.
Rationale and the main policy objectives
Main policy objectives of the NQF are three:
- to give and interlink overview of the structure of the education system with an emphasis of entry and exit points and definition of the knowledge, skills and competences assigned to each point
- to act as a tool for reform and as an opportunity to review the overall functioning of education and training
- to assure mobility of students between institutions nationally and internationally.
The Icelandic National Qualifications Framework is assumed to encompass all education and training offered in the country, be it general education, academic studies, VET, art studies, special education or adult education. At the moment there is a loosely defined connection between the level of upper secondary education and higher education, though both levels have been developed with the same concepts in mind. There are differences between the levels that need to be pointed out.
The upper secondary level has four defined stages and the higher education level has three levels, making the Icelandic NQF having seven levels.
At upper secondary level all qualifications will be assigned levels through a certification process by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, which will assure quality of the system. The certification will apply to all education at upper secondary level and higher education, and to arts education and adult education in the future.
At the higher education level the higher education institutions gain accreditation from the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture by process of application and evaluation that includes submission of current course description defined as learning outcomes and linked to levels of the NQF within a set field of study. After a higher education institution has achieved accreditation in a field of study, the institution has full rights to define any study program that fits under that field of study and is at bachelors and masters level.
In this respect the framework is a tool for transparency, giving an overview over existing qualifications in the country and how they are related to each other. When referenced to the EQF, the framework will also clarify how Icelandic qualifications can be compared to those in other European countries.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture is responsible for the overall coordination of the work on the NQF.
The original higher education part of the NQF from 2007 was developed by a committee where major stakeholders had a representatives, and in the revision work from 2009 – 2011 the same stakeholders were involved with the addition of student representative.
In 2008, the Ministry set up nine working groups covering the upper secondary qualifications and all the different parts of the education and training system. These working groups have been instrumental in developing learning outcomes based curricula and thus in redefining the scope and profile of qualifications. Providers are looking to the results of this work when planning and reviewing their study programmes. In the working groups covering VET, social partners are represented along with representatives of teachers, etc.
Since 2010, a total of 12 occupational councils have been actively involved in the review of qualifications in their respective areas. Being coordinated by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, these councils cover all the important occupational and have played a key role in placing existing qualifications (in their respective areas) to the relevant EQF levels (1-5) of the framework. This process has been important for clarifying the potential of the NQF – and the learning outcomes perspective – to stakeholders in the labour market.
The Ministry is, together with Occupational Councils, developing a list of all active qualifications at upper secondary level at the present time and give a reasoned support for assigning levels to them. The aim of the list is not only to gain united comprehension of placement of qualifications on NQF-levels, but also to implement the learning outcome thinking and verify whether recommended amount of NQF-levels and the descriptors are adequate for upper secondary formal education. The Occupational Councils have written a descriptions of competence/skills needs for individual professions. To begin with, these descriptions will refer to all qualifications which exist in the present day system, but later on they will also include new qualifications developed on the basis of new skills needs suggested by the labour market, that will broaden the education offer in line with the development in the labour market. They will be useful for education providers that will be responsible for writing aims for study programmes and they will from the beginning be assigned levels in the NQF.
The councils are expected to play a key role as regards the identification of existing and future skills and competence needs. In this respect the learning outcomes approach has proved useful and makes it possible to see the relationship between the skills and competences needs at work and the provisions offered by education and training.
In the self-certification process to the EHEA 2011, the higher education sector decided to adopt the EQF concepts knowledge, skill and competence in their descriptors. The higher education sector is currently updating their programmes of study in relation to the revised framework.
In other ways the higher education sector has only to a limited extent been involved in the development of the comprehensive NQF. The consequence of this is that the relationship between (in particular) vocational and academic qualifications (and levels) only to a limited extent has been discussed and articulated. Future developments of the NQF might very well have to look closer into this relationship between levels to ensure increased permeability and allow for more flexible progression-routes
In general the Icelandic framework has been received positively by the different stakeholders. This also applies to teachers and trainers who are actively involved in the on-going reforms related to learning outcomes, curricula and key-competences.
A discussion is on whether a 7-level structure (where the Icelandic level 1 covers EQF levels 1 and 2) will be sufficiently ‘fine-grained’ to be of relevance to individuals entering the system with few or none formal qualifications. The debate on the lower levels of the framework underlines the importance attributed to an inclusive framework – able to address the (diverse) education, training and learning needs of the entire population.
Compared to the EQF descriptors, the Icelandic national descriptors are more detailed and specific. Particular emphasis has been given to connect the key terms of the descriptors; knowledge, skill and competence to the Icelandic version of the European key competences, underlining that this is an aspect not only relevant to VET but also to general and Higher Education. The reason of more complex descriptors is that not only do the reformed Icelandic education system for Upper Secondary school demands every study programme to be assigned to NQF-levels through a certification process but also is every course unit supposed to be assigned to a level. The level of each study programme comprehends definite ratio of courses on the qualification level and levels below. Therefore there is one ordinary EQF-descriptor for placing the qualifications and additional more detailed descriptors for placing the courses.
The Ministry has in collaboration with social partners published descriptors for a) Vocational Education and Occupation-Specific Training, b) Arts studies, c) Mathematic, d) Icelandic and e) Foreign languages. Many of the Upper Secondary schools have published descriptors in other subjects. The actual descriptors for placing qualifications are published in the National Curriculum Guide for Upper Secondary School and in the National Qualification Framework for higher education in relation to the self-certification process to the EHEA 2011. The other descriptors are meant to be for guidance.
Use of learning outcomes
The shift to learning outcomes is seen as an important part of on-going education and training reforms in Iceland. A systematic use of learning outcomes, referring to a national set of descriptors, is seen as important for the future design of qualifications. It will help to clarify the balance of knowledge, skills and competences for different programmes at different levels and bring added value to current practices where each school has a large say on the form and content of the programme or course. It is also envisaged that the use of learning outcomes-based levels and descriptors will make it easier to assess whether schools operate at the same level of learning outcomes or whether there are major differences between them.
The emphasise on shift to learning outcomes can be seen in the newly published Curriculum Guides for compulsory and upper secondary school and in the NQF for higher education published in 2011. Every course description on upper secondary and higher education level is required to be learning outcome based.
Implementation of the Icelandic NQF
As with all changes in the legislation supporting the educational system the primary responsibility falls on the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture to support the implementation of the change in practise. However this of course cannot happen without full cooperation with the major stakeholder in the field. At higher education level the strategy opted for in relation to the implementation of the changes were linking the accreditation of higher institutions to the implementation of the frameworks. This meaning that all institutions that applied for accreditation from the Minister of Education, Science and Culture had to upgrade their study programmes accordingly to gain accreditation. The accreditation is vital to the higher education institutions as the government will not fund institutions that have not gained accreditation.
At upper secondary level the implementation is more complicated and the change in the structure of the study programmes of upper secondary schools introduced in the laws from 2008 require schools not only to revise their programmes but invites them to rewrite and redefine them from scratch.
The implementation at upper secondary level is led by the Ministry and involves extensive cooperation with all stakeholders as described earlier in this chapter. Funding for development of tools and training has been provided, though much lower than was expected in 2008. This has proven to be one of the major hindrances of the implementation of the change, which has already resulted in delayed full adoption of the changes to 2015.
Monitoring of the implementation is the responsibility of Ministry of Education, Science and Culture both at higher education level and at upper secondary level. At the higher education level the Quality Council, a board of international and national experts, oversees the external quality assurance of all aspects of higher education, including the use of the NQF.
The process and responsibilities at upper secondary level are more complicated as there are more actors involved. First of there is a validation/accreditation process for study programmes, that is in place at the Ministry, where schools apply for validation/accreditation of programmes. This process involves both internal experts at the ministry and external experts. The external experts can be the occupational councils if relevant or other external capable institutions. Secondly the Ministry is responsible for external evaluation of all upper secondary education institution, where study programmes are under scrutiny as well as all other parts of implementation and running of the institution.
The most important lessons learned and the way forward
The experiences linked to the introduction of a learning outcomes-based approach are being summarised as very positive and stimulating for the overall reform of the education and training system. This process, however, is also challenging in the sense that many stakeholders have little experience in applying a learning outcomes-based approach in practice. The novelty of the approach, and the uncertainty this causes, has required the Ministry to provide guidance and pay particular emphasis to the development reflecting the Icelandic situation.
The experiences of the occupational councils in using a learning outcome based approach for identifying skills needs in their sectors and for placing qualifications to levels have proved very positive. The aim of the list was not only to gain united comprehension of placement of qualifications on NQF-levels, but also to implement the learning outcome thinking and verify whether recommended amount of NQF-levels and the descriptors are adequate for upper secondary formal education. The results were very promising and no major disagreement occurred.
The most important lessons learned is involving people (practitioners, leaders and teachers in schools, providers, social partners and learners), count on their ability to take in the new thinking and give them time to develop the results in guidance of the Ministry.
The main challenges now is to inform more people and increase understanding, the performing of quality assurance and to see how the linking between different countries will appear.