The European Union (EU) has been anxious for some time to synchronise educational and training qualifications throughout the member countries. The purpose is to promote mutual recognition of qualifications by member countries, which would facilitate ease of educational movement throughout the EU. The Copenhagen Declaration has resulted in greater alignment in vocational education and training while the Bologna Declaration has made further and higher education qualifications across Europe more compatible and comparable. Both Declarations have the common objective of developing further and higher education across Europe so that ease of mobility to study and work is available to all EU citizens. The Lisbon Convention in 1997 adopted a proposal to set in place mutual recognition of qualifications throughout the EU by 2010. The Lisbon Convention has since been signed and ratified by most EU member countries and has been in force in Ireland for the past three years. Ireland now recognises educational qualifications from other EU countries, which are similar to corresponding qualification in our own educational system. The same applies to Irish qualifications abroad.
Since the Irish Government adopted the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act back in 1999, far reaching reforms of the qualifications system in this country have been undertaken. As a result of the Act, three new organisations were established in 2001. The National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI) was launched to set up and maintain the new National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ). Following three years of intensive development the NFQ was launched in October 2003. The Framework, itself, has been structured in a manner that guarantees a more coherent and flexible system of qualifications in Ireland. The 1999 Act established The Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC) and the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC). FETAC is engaged in the task of developing a system of qualifications for further education and training while HETAC is the qualifications awarding body for third-level educational and training institutions outside the university sector. The Universities and Dublin Institute of Technology award their own qualifications. HETAC has also delegated authority to a number of Institutes of Technology, including I.T. Tralee, to make their own awards.
Here in Ireland, the National Framework of Qualifications is a ten level structure by which all achievements in learning is now measured. Standards of knowledge, skill and competence have been set out for each level. The Junior Certificate Examination is categorised as a Level 3 award while the Leaving Certificate Examination slots in at Levels 4 and 5. The new Framework of Qualifications directly impacted on those who applied to the CAO in 2005. With the introduction of new awards at Levels 6, 7 and 8 many awards previously in use, such as Certificate, Diploma and Degree are no longer available. The Certificate has been replaced by a Higher Certificate (HC) and entered the Framework at Level 6. Instead of a Diploma, CAO applicants now apply for an Ordinary Bachelor Degree (DG) at Level 7. The Honours Bachelor Degree (HD), which is a Level 8 award, has now replaced the former Bachelor Degree. In the CAO literature, courses are identified as falling into one of the three levels mentioned above. As usual, CAO allows application to be made for up to ten courses in each of two categories. Level 8 courses are in a category of their own while Level 7 and Level 6 courses comprise the second category. The value of the NFQ is that it enables an individual, who has achieved at any level in the Framework, to progress comfortably to the next level, either at home or abroad.
The National Framework of Qualifications has greatly improved opportunities for people to access further and higher education. It provides ease of transfer between courses and institutions. Most significantly, it enriches peoples' personal experiences and greatly enhances their life chances. The Framework also facilitates the Irish education sector to meet the requirements of the Copenhagen and Bologna Declarations, the aim of which is to give recognition to all levels of knowledge and to promote greater student mobility throughout the European Union.
Billy Ryle M.Ed BA HDE DCG DME is a Chartered Member of The Institute of Guidance Counsellors. He is a regular writer and commentator on career and educational issues.