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Construction of the European Area of Skills and Qualifications: Challenges and Opportunities

Marta Ponikowska

Today mobility across national borders is seen as increasingly important for competitive labor market, excellent research and higher education. Free movement of people is one of the four freedoms constituting the EU Single Market. Facilitating mobility of researchers is among the core aims of the European Research Area, while the ERASMUS programme supports student mobility.

However, international mobility requires specific mechanisms and instruments that would allow people to properly set up in their new homelands – find places to study and work. That is why the key issue related to the development of the European mobility is the ability to compare and recognize qualifications for the needs of lifelong learning and labor market. It should be stressed that the transparency of qualifications systems and recognition of qualifications is very important in the context of mobility not only within the EU but also around the world.

For some years we can observe various instruments introduced by the EU, supporting the process of building the European Area of Skills and Qualifications. The European Area of Skills and Qualifications can be understood as a citizen and business friendly EU area where the skills and qualifications are easily compared and recognised. The aim of building this area is directly connected with enhancing personal development of learners, and thus the development and mobility of the European society, as well as strengthening the EU Single Market. The EU has developed a number of instruments designed to facilitate the mobility of Europeans (some of them are: the Professional Qualifications Directive (Directive 2005/36/EC), the European Qualifications Framework (EQF), Europass, European credit transfer systems (ECTS and ECVET), the multilingual classification of European Skills/Competences, Qualifications and Occupations (ESCO)).

It is not easy to assess how coherent the EU institutions have been when recommending all the lifelong learning and qualification policy instruments to the Member States and to what extent those instruments have facilitated the European mobility and contributed to the concept of building the European Area of Skills and Qualifications. Calendini and Storai (2002)[i] indicate that the difficulties in the mutual recognition of qualifications by the Member States do not stem from the technical or methodological difficulties, but are associated with differences between the European societies and the differences between various national approaches. They describe concept of the European market for qualifications as problematic one and unlikely to become a reality, because of the weaknesses of the plans for harmonization of national education sectors. Moreover, Calendini and Storai argue that the construction of a coherent system of qualifications is complicated, because of many organizations with conflicting interests and different classifications. The only available tool of action in the opinion of the authors is a consensus on a level of a common European definition of qualifications.

In the light of the ongoing reforms of the European qualifications systems and the European strategies for education and skills, the question on the EU ability to build an internal European Area of Skills and Qualifications remains unanswered. It is worth asking the question about the compatibility of the EU instruments impact on the construction of a European Area of Skills and Qualifications. The other question mark concerns the possibility to build the European area of skills and qualifications, taking into account the differences between the education systems, methods of training and quality assurance systems.

Economic changes in Europe and the needs of the labour market will certainly play a significant role when looking for the answers. For the time being I echo Calendini and Storai opinion that solutions concerning the skills and qualifications in various countries will more or less vary. Close cooperation with the social partners, trade unions, education and business sector actors need to be conducted both on the level of the EU and Member States. The well-functioning common area of skills and qualifications cannot be achieved by implementation of the EU directive or regulation; to be successful it needs cooperation among stakeholders.

Marta Ponikowska is an analyst at the Educational Research Institute, Warsaw, Poland. Her research focusses on Law and Education.


[i] J.B. Calendini and C. Storai, ‘Vocational qualifications and the European labour market: the challenges and the prospects’, The Economics of Harmonizing European Law, 2002

This post was initially published on Europe of Knowledge blog.

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