The European Qualification Framework : skills, competences or knowledges ?
Paper for the 28th annual International Labour Process Conference
Stream : Skills and the global economy
Philippe Méhaut
Senior Reseacher
LEST, Aix Marseille University
Draft, do not circulate
Since the beginning of the new century, the EU policy is focused on “making Europe the most
competitive economy in the knowledge society”. The agenda includes improving the education and
training systems, lifelong learning, international mobility of the workers and of the students. EU
however has no power and competences to act directly on national policies regarding the enhancing
of skills and competences. One way to pass round this obstacle is to promote an integrated policy of
qualifications, based on the outcomes of the education and training systems and not on the inputs.
Building, as it is also promoted by OECD, international qualifications frameworks is a tool to put
pressure on national systems without overstepping the EU field of competences. The European
Qualification Framework, in a process of implementation, is one of the tools developed at the EU
level in that purpose.
An international (European) qualification framework, is a good analyser of some of the tensions
regarding the skills formation in the global economy.
In this paper we will first discuss the question of competence based human resource management
and competence based qualifications in a comparative perspective. Secondly, we will examine how
an international qualification framework (the EU one), with numerous goals, is questioning the
national systems of qualifications. Then we will draw some hypotheses on the way by which
national systems could adapt to the EU qualification framework .
Inspired by the international comparative analyses of the education and labour market relationship
(such as the societal analysis from LEST (Maurice, Sellier, Silvestre, 1986) or the « VOC » analysis
(Hall and Soskice, 2001), the paper is mainly based various comparative analysis in which the
author was involved : a comparative analysis of VET systems (Bosch Charest, 2009), a comparative
analysis done on 4 Qualifications in 4 countries (UK, FR, NL, D), with desk work on the
qualifications files, deep interviews of the main stakeholders) (Brockmann, Clarke, Winch,
1. Competences based qualifications and competence
management: common trends and national differences.
In numerous EU countries, one can see on the one hand the reshaping of the qualifications
following a competence based model and, on the other hand, the growth of the competence based
Human resource management (mostly in big firms). These two trends are obviously partly linked.
However, this does not means that the same concept of competence is shared in all the countries.
1.1 Competence based qualifications system : from input to outcomes
In France, as in a lot of other EU countries, the qualification delivered by the training system are
more and more build on « competences ».
A new design of the qualifications
The general principle is to design a competence framework based on the job or tasks analysis. This
competence framework, on which individuals will be assessed, is independent of the way by which
competences could be acquired (through formal education and training, through work experience...).
And, theoretically, it does not follow the academic/technical division of knowledge.
The trend to introduce competence based qualifications is said :
to be able to follow more strictly the firm's requirements and to be closer to the way by
which they are developing there own competence based HRM policies (see below);
to counteract the power of the teacher and the « conservatism » of the training system;
to allow a better transparency of the qualifications;
and to permit to the individuals to acquire qualifications through various path (formal
courses, accreditation of prior learning).
Moreover, it foster the trend to new rules of financing of the training institutions (through outputs
and not through inputs). It push towards a market led training system (Fealstead, 1999). OECD, as
well as the EU play a strong role in the diffusion of this model. The English NVQs system is
sometimes presented as a good practice to be followed.
Heterogeneous concepts of competencies
However, it must be emphasized that the concept of competencies is a bit fuzzy (Maillard, 2008).
And it is highly embedded in national conception of education and training systems.
The Netherlands and France are using a multidimensional concept of competencies, mixing the use
of knowledge and know-how in a job, as well as behavioural competencies. In both countries, The
set of competencies is based on the analysis of a set of tasks, but it never broke the unity of the
job/trade. Moreover, this set of competencies is often a generic one, i.e shared by a « family » of
In the UK, namely for the NVQs, the concept of competencies is narrower. It is close to the
performance at the job place, to the capacity to perform a specific list of tasks, without keeping the
unity of the job/trade. The notion of competencies, which is in strong links with the English use of
« skills », refers more to behavioural aptitudes to be proved at the work place than to the
underpinning knowledge and know-how in the two continental countries (Brockman and alii, 2008)
If we use a (schematic) figure, one can say that the « grain » of competence is smaller in the UK
than in the Netherlands or France. And, when looking at the NVQs, the « grains » are separated
without relationship with the « ear ». At the opposite, in the two continental countries, grains are not
separated from the ear. A more holistic concept of competencies is opposed to a fragmented one.
(Méhaut, Winch, 2009)
1.2 What relationships with the competences based Human Resource Management ?
This growth of the concept of competence in the training systems is said echoing the changes in the
firm’s HRM where one can also see that the competence based management is increasing. In
France, as in other countries, this new way of evaluation of the workers, based on individual
portfolio of competencies was introduced, since the mid eighties, mainly in big firms. It is partly in
tension with the more collective rules of the collective agreements such as the seniority rules. It put
the emphasis on the development and use (and obsolescence) of the competencies at the work place.
However, as for the qualification system, national conceptions of the competence at work differ
(Dupray, Guitton, Monchatre, ).
To our knowledge, few comparative works exist on the various models of management by
competencies. Bouteiller and Gilbert (2005) tried to compare American conception and French one.
Similar considerations could be found in Geffroy and Tijou (2001). Lefresne (2001) proposed a
comparative analysis in various European countries, but she focused more on the external devices
(like NVQ in UK) than on firm’s practices. Klarsfeld, 2009, put also the emphasis on the
differences between th US and the French model.
In short, the roots of the competencies models in the UK/US are to be found in the psychological
approach of commitment and performance (Spencer et Spencer, 1993, Bouteiller, Gilbert, 2005). It
is a critical approach of the attempt to measure intelligence (the IQ test for example), or to measure,
before hiring, the forecast aptitudes and performances that lead to a new conception. The problem is
therefore to be able to define what the attributes of a “best performer” in the job are, then to draw
up the profile of competencies linked to such a performance, and to use such a profile in order to
evaluate the individuals, before hiring or on the job: if you are able to calculate the score on various
dimensions of performance, then you are able to rank individuals, to pay them, to plan the necessary
evolution from on score to another. Such methods were built on the bases of groups of performers
compared with other. They lead to a “map of competencies”, a “map of key competencies” for a
firm according to its mains objectives. Hays group largely diffused them. Key objective is how to
select best performers when hiring, then how to link wages or upgrading on performance as defined
in the frame of reference.
According to Bouteiller and Gilbert, the French conception is mainly rooted in a different origin. It
came partly from research on training, mainly about low skilled people. It is a kind of critic of the
academic and disciplinary representation of knowledge and know-how. Putting the emphasis on
what is done and learned on the job, one can help individuals to transform empirical experience into
a new kind of knowledge. At the beginning, speaking of competencies is a way of rediscovering
experience, taking distance from pure learning situations. It is close to the conception of
ergonomists and specialist of cognitive sciences who put the emphasis on concrete and practical
know-how and link the development of competencies to the learning organizations (Amadieu,
Cadin, 1996). Competencies are more collective than in the US model. They are closer to the
organizational choice than to the individuals’ performance. And less emphasis is put on the
individual’s behaviours and “soft skills”.
Méhaut (2005) proposed a grid of analysis following two axes. Examining 80 monograph of firms
in some EU countries, he showed that most of the UK firms were located in the upper right
quadrant. The French firms were located in the left side (upper or lower).
Graphic representation for classifying/positioning the management by competencies
Individual oriented practices
Pratiques centrées sur les individus
Degree of
n of
The company is considered
as a collection of individuals
aimed at
are for all
Community of employees
Presence of
trade union
The company is considered as a
Organisation oriented practices
2. Qualification Frameworks : reinforcing the competence based models ?
This debate about what are competencies, what are the links with knowledge, skills and behaviours
is also present when looking, more recently, at the implementation of the EU qualification
framework. Adopted by the European Parliament in 2008, the European Qualification Framework
(EQF) is described as a ‘meta-framework’ designed to promote both a common terminology and
common reference points for the comparison of qualifications of the member countries of the
European Union. It can be seen as part of the general tendency, supported by international
organizations (notably the OECD), to develop such frameworks at national and international level.
The objectives for such frameworks are generally stated as a greater transparency and
rationalization of qualifications, especially when national qualifications are varied and numerous.
2.1 A brief description of the EQF
As most of the National Qualification Frameworks (NQFs), the EQF is a kind of matrix, in which
qualifications could take place.
The columns allow to describe the various cognitive aspects of a qualification (the competencies).
And the rows allow to define the level of mastery of this set of competencies from the lowest to the
highest. Each country is invited to use this framework in order to classify its qualifications. This
will permit to build equivalences between qualifications at the EU level. This will produce
transparency and mutual trust between the various NQFs, enhancing international mobility of the
students and of the workers.
Table 1 : The matrix of the EQF
Competence (Autonomy and
Level 1
Level 2
Level 3
Level 4
Level 5
Level 6
Level 7
Level 8 (doctoral)
Each country is invited to use this matrix in order to locate the national qualifications within the EU
2.2 Multiple objectives
Without departing from these main goals, EQF seems however, sometimes explicitly, sometimes
implicitly, to pursue other goals too (cf particularly Sellin, 2008), hence inevitable fuzziness of
concepts and potential tensions between sometimes contradictory objectives.
The EQF appears first of all as a comprehensive framework aiming at transcending the
borders between vocational and general education. In theory it also covers higher education.
This further step goes together with the trend in most European countries towards raising
levels of vocational education through a higher education system which is becoming
increasingly vocational (Méhaut, 2009 for France, Bosch and Charest, 2009). It is also
consonant with one of the aims of European policy, that of parity of esteem between general
and vocational education.
The EQF is fully engaged with the European policy of lifelong vocational and professional
education. It thus covers without distinction qualifications in both initial and continuing
education. However it goes further, since, following European terminology and
recommendations, it aims at qualifications which could recognize learning acquired through
‘formal’, ‘informal’ and ‘non formal’ processes.
In order to do this, but also because it has taken account of the failure of previous European
attempts to elaborate a system of equivalences between qualifications, it is founded on
learning outcomes. It thus breaks with the ‘input-output’ approach (number of years of
study, number of hours of vocational education (inputs) and, for example, an exam pass
mark signifying a level of knowledge (outputs)). However, as we have seen above, the
interpretation of what is meant by ‘learning outcomes’ is different in the EU countries. Here,
there is a strong parentage with the Anglo-Saxon tradition of “competences”.
The design features of the EQF are intended to achieve three distinct objectives The first is
‘horizontal’ comparability of qualification levels between countries. This harmonization is
supposed to be necessary in the context of pupil and student mobility in Europe. The second
objective is ‘vertical’ comparability. Here one is more concerned with intra-national
considerations, in the context of life-long vocational education and vertical pathways from
one qualification to another (as in the level system in France or Holland). A third objective,
however, largely implicit, is that of levels ‘on the labour market’. EQF is presented as an
instrument for the mobility of workers, making easier the comparison of qualifications and
vocational abilities.
As we can see, the idea of a ‘meta-framework’ can now be interpreted in three senses. Meta in the
sense of framework in which one can compare different national qualification frameworks (which
supposes a certain flexibility in the use of language). Meta in the sense of assimilating all
qualifications, whatever their nature, goals and origins. Meta in the sense that, whereas its aim is
first and foremost the development of general and vocational education policy, it in fact goes
beyond it towards the old aspiration of ‘the free movement of labour’.
Key questions in the process of implementation
From a comparative study on four countries (NL, G, UK and F) and four qualifications (bricklayer,
lorry driver, nurse and computer engineering), (Brockmann, Clarke, Winch, forthcoming), we can
pinpoint briefly some of the key questions arising from the EQF, which are strongly linked with
what has been said above about “competencies”.
3.1 Competences, skills or knowledge ?
As shown in table 1, the EQF is based on three categories of “competences” (and is a bit unclear as
the word competences is used as a general heading for the three columns and, in an other meaning,
for the third one).
However, the meaning –and the weight- of theses competencies is different according to the
As said before, in the English sense, and namely in the NVQs system, competencies are separated,
linked to the performance in a task, and with low emphasis on the underpinning knowledge. So,
what to do with column 1 ? At the opposite, the French tradition of a school-based system (however
with huge changes, see Mehaut 2009) put a strong emphasis on the knowledge (theoretical,
academic, and/or build from experience), as underpinning the know-how and “competences”. This
is also the case for the Netherlands, as, in both country the dual currency of the qualification implies
a gradual mastership of the knowledge.
Skills, in the British meaning, are equivalent to the second column. However, “skills” is not
synonymous of the French “savoir-faire” (which is badly translate as know-how). Here again, the
French word is broader as it includes the word “knowledge”, i.e putting not only the emphasis on
the ability to perform, but also on the way by which non academic knowledge are embodied in the
“skills” and underpin the performance.
If we move to the third column, the word “competence” is used, with a strong reference to the social
behaviour of the individual (the autonomy in the task, more or less broad according to the level and
the responsibility, i.e the ability to manage other peoples). In French, and in other languages, this
will be translated in “attitudes”. Theses attitudes are explicitly mentioned in the Dutch qualification
system. In the French one, it is usual to speak of “savoir être”. In the German one, one speak of
Kompetenzen, which are both social and civic. With different importance (higher in the Dutch case
than in France or Germany), theses “attitudes” do not focus only on the work place and are not
restricted to the question of autonomy and responsibility. Moreover, they are regarded not as an
individual’s attribute but as also the result of a process of learning.
On of the consequence of these differences is a the balance between the three columns will vary
between countries.
3.2 « Learning outcomes » : reinforcing the trend
The EQF is hardly based on learning outcomes. The referencing process of the national
qualifications is said to be done without considering the inputs (hours of teaching). In that sense, it
fits with and fosters the trend analysed in section 1. However, examining different systems of
qualifications, we have showed that strong differences exist not only between countries but also
within countries. In the relationship between inputs and outcomes. In the Netherlands, all the
qualifications are organised on competences/outcomes. However, the links between inputs and
outcomes remain strong in practice. France shows a more blurred pictures. Some qualifications are
not yet competences based1. And, as in the Netherlands, the relationship with inputs remains. In
Germany, the core of the dual system is designed by the job’s targets . In that sense, it could be said
as “outcomes drive”. However, the fine design of the qualifications includes strong inputs
considerations. In the UK, as said above, the NVQs fit well with the EQF concept of outputs.
However it is not the case for other qualifications (such as nurse qualification, BTEC and others).
So, even if the EQF (and NQFs) puts pressure towards more outcomes based systems 2, again, the
distance with a pure “outcomes based” conception will be more or less greater.
3.3 The questions of the levels : various consequences for the national systems
The countries are invited to rank the qualifications according to the eight rows of the matrix. This is
not a pure technical exercise because, in most of the countries, it implies social consequences, both
within the training system and on the labour market.
In three countries (UK, NL and F) qualifications are ranked according to national grids. However,
this does not means that they follow the same principle.
In the UK, which is classified in the VOC analysis as a market led, with a low status training
system, there is a strong separation between general education and vocational training. And most of
the NVQs have no internal currency within the education and training system : they do not allow to
move to the general education or to tertiary education and training. And, due to the weakness and
structure of collective agreements, the have a weak currency on the labour market. The national
ranking system, in eight levels fit well with the EU one, and there are few economic and social
consequences to simply translate the national levels to the EU ones.
In the Netherlands and in France, where qualifications are also ranked a long a national grid, the
levels have two meanings. First they express the currency of the qualifications inside of the
Most of the qualifications in the tertiary education. As an example, at the time of our study, the nurse qualification
was redesigned using a competence based approach But the link with inputs remains strong, as, for a regulated
profession, the organisation of the studies (years, hours) is nationally ruled.
As well as the development of the Accreditation of Prior Learning
education and training system. A qualification at a level allows to progress to the upper level.
Moreover, the qualifications are organised in parallel in the general education and in the technical
and vocational one. The two systems are more integrated than in the UK, and foot-bridge exists to
move from one system to an other, as well as to move to tertiary vocational education. If the
translation within the EU grid does not follow the national hierarchy, this could have consequences
on the pathways within the national systems. When looking at the labour market, consequences
could also arise. The Dutch labour market looks like the German one. It is ruled by occupational
rules and the currency of the qualifications is quite strong to get a job and or to move. And the
position within the EU grid could change the hierarchy of the jobs and pay structure. France as
often been characterised as a country with dominant internal labour markets. Due to the change in
the firms structure, and to the strong growth of vocational education and training, this is less true
today. Occupational rules or « quasi « occupational rules » are more frequent. If firms are not
obliged (and do not) to follow the hierarchy of the qualifications for wages and positioning within
collective agreements, it is well-known that , unlike the UK, the levels of the qualifications play a
strong role in the hiring process of young entering on the labour market (see for example Bessy, for
a French/UK comparison). And the description of the job's hierarchy within the collective
agreements (with a very high coverage rate) often include a reference to the qualifications. So, here
also, any change due to the EU grid will re-open discussions about the currency of the qualifications
on the labour market.
Germany is the only one country where, in theory; the most important qualifications delivered by
the apprenticeship system are not levelled. On the one hand this is due to the strong figure of the
« facharbeiter » and to the unity of the blue collar working class. This is also due to the fact that, as
in the UK and unlike the two other countries, the relationships between the apprentice system and
the other education and training routes is (was) low. Here, the levelling process introduced by the
EQF hits hardly the national tradition and structure of the qualifications and of the jobs. It is not
surprising that some unions are strongly opposed to this process (see Drexel, 2005).
Two main sets of conclusions arise from this analysis.
First, we have pinpointed some commons trends affecting the design of the qualifications (and of
the VET). Driving forces are coming from the labour market, but also from EU and other
international organisations trying to promote a new model. Nevertheless, tensions are obvious. As
explained, concepts, namely the concept of competencies, are quite ambiguous. If more and more
the emphasis is put on individual's competencies (i.e the « soft skills »), a lot of debates remain
open, in the VET policies, as well as in firms and on the labour market. M Young (2009) stress that
there is a risk of under evaluating the « knowledge » side and the way by which societies are
reproducing and transferring knowledge from one generation to an other. Other scholars (see for
example Rope Tanguy, 1994, or Crahay 2006) also criticise the risk of fragmentation introduced by
competences-based qualifications. This is a question, on the one hand, of balance between -for
example- the three columns of the EQF. But this is also, as emphasized by Vinokur (1995), a
question of power between the various stakeholders of the system. The competences-based model,
introducing a new form of management of the qualifications put a kind of external pressure on VET
systems, with less power to the teachers and internal stakeholders. And, it increases the risk (and
more in the fragmented conception) of a loose of transversality of the qualifications.
Second, despite these common trends and questions, we have seen how national systems could
react differently. At the time of this paper, Germany is still discussing to adopt or not the EQF.
France is on a kind of « soft use », i.e referencing the qualifications without changing the national
grid. The Netherlands is also debating. Only the UK has quickly adopt the referencing process, in a
quite mechanical process. It is not only a question of « path dependency » or of rigidity of the
qualifications and VET systems. It is also a question for the currency of the qualifications, both
inside the VET systems and on the labour market.
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