Bilateral agreements on the free circulation of the workforce between Switzerland and the European Union (EU) and full entry into Switzerland, in force since 2004, has led to an increasing flow of migrants – both skilled and unskilled workers. Migrants now account for more than 23 per cent of the Swiss population and about 30 per cent of the workforce. Many migrants occupy manufacturing and low-skilled positions, which has led to increased social segregation between newcomers and the original Swiss population. In particular, qualified women from non-EU countries, often entering the country due to family reunification, are facing increased challenges in obtaining a work permit and for making their prior experience and learning visible. Thus, Switzerland is seeking to develop new strategies to overcome this challenge. Validation of non-formal and informal learning is seen as an important element in relation to integrating these women into the workforce or letting them access continuing training and tertiary education.
The validation of migrants’ prior learning needs to be seen within the context of the Swiss validation system, which is a comprehensive, overarching model with a strong legal basis. Moreover, it is multi-dimensional in the sense that the results of a validation process can be used in various ways. Results can be used to claim a certification in a growing number of qualifications – both in Vocational Education and Training (VET) and some higher vocational education and training (PET) paths – and to gain credits in a higher education pathway.
This case study focusses on the validation of learning completed by migrant women in Switzerland and includes the findings of research carried out through semi-structured interviews with fifteen migrant women regarding their experiences with validation in Switzerland (Bednarz and Bednarz 2014). These interviews focus on the women’s migratory routes and personal attributes.
Bednarz and Bednarz’ research (2014) takes the following three dimensions of validation of non-formal and informal learning into account: 1) Validation as a means for individual empowerment by making prior learning visible; 2) Validation as a means to achieve a qualification and thereafter enter the workforce (employability); and 3) Validation as a means to access higher education. In relation to these three dimensions, the research examines a number of validation projects carried out in Switzerland.
Procedures and processes
- Validation as a means for individual empowermentThe study took into account one formative project, ‘World Wide Women’, in which the role of validation serves the purpose of empowering immigrant women. The project tested how to recognize prior learning through the exchange of experiences with others, individual sessions, and through the use of virtual networking, as well as how to use these methods to develop the women’s career plans.ProAct, another formative empowerment project organized by the training and coaching association Découvrir, has also been considered in the study. The association arranged several training modules as well as individual and group discussion sessions for qualified migrant women in Switzerland. These sessions were focussed on topics such as how to establish a professional network. Moreover, the association sought to make the women aware of their skills and competences, in order to restore their confidence and encourage a proactive approach to employability. The overall aim of the project was to support the qualified women’s social and professional integration into the Swiss society.
- Validation as a means to achieve a qualification and enter the workforceThe second study considered two different settings. In the first setting, the EFIS project (Employability of Italian Female immigrants in Switzerland) sought to foster the employability of migrant women. Promoted by the ECAP foundation in 2010, this project offered migrant women extensive job searching guidance, as well as guidance on how to improve their computer and language skills. The aim of the project was to integrate or reintegrate migrant women in the local labour market.In the second setting, also concerned with employability, the ‘Val-Form’ procedure set up by the Department of Education, Culture and Sports of the Canton of Valais was used. The ‘Val-Form’ procedure takes into account the the National Validation Guidelines, which comprise a five-phased validation process combining validation and preparatory or continuing training. The aim was to enable women to obtain a locally recognized certificate: either a qualification in the VET sector or a federal certificate in the PET sector.
- VPL as a means to access higher educationFinally, the study considered the pilot procedure promoted by Geneva University, together with the University of Applied Sciences of Western Switzerland, aimed at implementing the validation of prior learning in an higher education setting. The study examined a diverse group of qualified women who were undergoing a summative validation process. This process dealt with the delivery of exemptions and credits based on the preparation of a personal dossier defining the women’s previous formal educational attainments and experiential learning from their home countries. This dossier was presented by the women in front of a jury. The aim of the project was to enable the women to enter a formal education pathway.
Outcomes and ways forward
The study shows that the process of validation of non-formal and informal learning is often undertaken by migrant women as a way to improve their social and professional integration in Switzerland.
According to the interviewed women, the validation process contributes to the awareness of their own skills and competences, which enhances their self-confidence and helps them feel visible and recognized in the new country. Without this awareness and enhanced self-confidence, there could be a risk of marginalization from the labour market and from society in general. Moreover, they articulated that the process contributes to the design and implementation of a personal development or career plan, which encourages them to undertake a qualification or follow an educational path. From the interviews, it appears that entering a validation process always produces a concrete outcome for individual women – either in the form of personal or professional development.
The words that recurred during interviews with migrant women were ‘recognition’, ‘personal development’, ‘making sense’, and ‘confidence’. These words were often used in cases where women described their experiences with validation processes leading to certification or credits. Validation per se is a learning process often requiring an individual to update competences and undertake additional education or training. Thus, women need to be supported in the discovery of the various available paths. Adequate support encourages women to overcome challenges encountered and to persevere with the validation process.
Several important success factors emerged from the research regarding the decision of migrant women to enter and complete a validation process.
The first factor concerned transparency and relevance of the information provided by validation advisors/counsellors and family members with prior experience with the Swiss validation system. In particular, relational networks were shown to be important, since success requires a constant move between professional advice and proximal relationships to gain the necessary information and concrete help. The women deemed the individual and collective coaching helpful, especially in cases where their varying situations and backgrounds were taken into account, and when they were assisted with finding the right mode and target for recognizing, validating and, ultimately, making their prior learning visible.
The second factor concerned the requirement of certain personal attributes such as personal motivation, pride and a strong desire to claim social recognition and dignity. The need for recognition arises from the desire to establish a professional identity, one that is often developed in the home country and later valued in Switzerland.
Another attribute deemed important was flexibility and the ability to seek alternative methods. Individual action plans often change depending on available opportunities on the labour market, constraints imposed by institutions and access to formal qualification prerequisites.
The study showed that it is essential to focus determinately on a clear goal, linking it to the achievement of personal or social recognition to balance the struggle with difficult conditions encountered by the women and their ambitions.
The third factor concerned the relationship between the appeal of validation and the social value of certification in the host country. In Switzerland, it is necessary to have a certificate that has been issued according to Swiss rules or by accredited institutions to be recognized as a professional. In many cases, it is even seen as more advantageous to have a Swiss qualification obtained at a lower level than one obtained at a higher level in a foreign country. Validation is therefore seen as an attractive opportunity to achieve a Swiss diploma without having to repeat a complete cycle of education or training.
Despite these success factors, it is worth mentioning some of the weaknesses, such as complexity of procedures and a lack of information and clear guidance. These elements all require a certain level of awareness with the local language and norms as well as a good understanding of validation logics in general. Since migrant women often lack these attributes when first arriving in the country, it is essential to increase the transparency of information and the quality of guidance.
Bednarz, F. and Bednarz, G., 2014. Multidimensional and multi-target approach to VPL in Switzerland. Valuing learning and competences of qualified immigrant women: three case studies. In: R. Duvekot, B. Halba, K. Aagaard, S. Gabršček and J. Murray. eds. The Power of VPL – Validation of prior learning as a multi-targeted approach for access to learning opportunities for all. Vught, Inholland University AS and European Centre Valuation Prior Learning.