In Austria, the development of a national strategy for validation of non-formal and informal learning, including all sectors, started only very recently in 2013. In 2015, a consultation document for the national validation strategy, including key objectives and measures, was published and a consultation process carried out. Based on the results of the consultation, organizational structures and an implementation plan will be developed in the coming months. The strategy is linked closely to the Austrian Lifelong Learning Strategy (LLL: 2020, (2011)) and to the NQF development, the legal base of which entered into force on 15 March 2016. The NQF should encompass all forms of learning and should also support the recognition of qualifications gained outside the formal learning context. The council recommendation on validation, as well as the implementation of the European Credit System in Vocational Education and Training (ECVET), both play an important role in this process.
Challenges and opportunities
In Austria, challenges associated with the validation of non-formal and informal learning include the limited role that validation has played in Austria so far, in comparison to other EU member countries. This may be explained by a traditionally strong orientation of the education and economic culture towards the initial vocational education and training (IVET) sector. For example, the dual system rests upon a combination of school and work-based learning and makes the inclusion of experiential learning explicit within the official models. This reduces the need to assess learning outcomes acquired outside the formal system. Furthermore, there is a relatively well-developed provision of second chance education (Prokopp & Luomi-Messerer, 2010, 2). Almost all formal qualifications resulting from the school system and dual system may be obtained by taking external exams, however, these opportunities are not always used extensively.
Standards, policy and framework activity
Despite the lack of a uniform framework for validation of non-formal and informal learning in Austria, different acts and regulations regarding the education and training system include mechanisms and arrangements that enable formal education and training institutes to recognize prior learning. Many validation initiatives and arrangements are linked to the sector of adult education (in many cases within the context of second chance education) and some measures are also identified in other fields, such as within the labour market and the third sector. These initiatives are mainly developed in bottom-up processes involving relevant stakeholders such as social partners.
The consultation document for the development of the Austrian validation strategy builds on the definition of ‘validation’ as presented in the council recommendation on the validation of non-formal and informal learning. It distinguishes two approaches based on their key objectives (BMBF, 2015, 7). These approaches are considered to be closely interlinked and work as steps or phases in a comprehensive validation process:
- ‘Formative validation’ approaches are individual-based measures that result in proof of competences obtained independently of the qualification system’s defined standards. The focus is on the identification and documentation of learning outcomes.
- ‘Summative validation’ approaches are requirements-based or standards-based measures that result in obtaining a qualification, or a part thereof, in either a formal or non-formal context, i.e. the learning outcomes of an individual are assessed and certified based on a relevant standard of a formal or non-formal qualification. The focus is on assessment and certification.
Examples of so-called ‘formative validation’ approaches in Austria include initiatives for validating competences gained in voluntary activities, such as:
- the Austrian Volunteer Passport
- the competence portfolio for volunteers of a platform of Austrian Adult Education Associations
- the ‘competence balance’ for people who have completed the civilian service
- initiatives developed in the youth sector, such as the WIK:I Was ich kann durch informelles Lernen [What I can do based on informal learning] competence portfolio
- initiatives in the adult education sector, such as the competence profile KOMPAZ for identifying non-formally and informally acquired competences.
Examples of so called ‘summative validation’ approaches include:
- the acquisition of certificates/qualifications from the formal education system, including the ‘exceptional admission to the final apprenticeship exam’, the ‘acquisition of lower secondary school qualifications by adults’ and other so-called ‘external exams’;
- acquisition of certificates/qualifications without any equivalents in the formal education system, such as the professional engineering title HTL-IngenieurIn, certificates issued by the Academy of Continuing Education in the adult education sector, access conditions to regulated professions and the certification of individuals (e.g. in the IT or welding sectors).
Some ‘summative validation’ procedures actually comprise all four stages of a validation process (identification, documentation, assessment and certification). These include initiatives that are linked closely to obtaining an apprenticeship qualification based on the validation of professional competences acquired in informal and non-formal learning. The following initiatives are examples of this: ‘You have skills/competences’, ‘Competence with System’ and ‘Recognition system Vienna: My chance – I have competences!’.
In the case of validation arrangements set in the formal system and/or external examinations aiming at formal education and training qualifications, the assessment methods for validation correspond to those used in the formal system. Written tests and oral exams are the most commonly used methods for external examinations, and competences are usually assessed according to standards set in the formal system. In the case of the apprenticeship leaving exam – as well as in the case of exceptional admissions – both theory (usually written) and practice are emphasized, and candidates are expected to furnish evidence of their practical know-how and job-related skills. Many of the recognition mechanisms set in the formal system or aimed at the formal education and training sector are linked to preparation courses to support candidates, but these courses are generally not compulsory. The availability of support measures such as information and awareness-raising initiatives, guidance, counselling and financial support varies depending on the recognition mechanism or initiative.
In the case of validation arrangements conducted in the adult education and training system, the procedures are often focused on recording individual development processes. Austria has developed methods of assessment that supplement traditional assessments. There are, for example, no mandated approaches to the implementation of validation in the adult education and continuing training sector. Initiatives developed at adult learning institutions apply a variety of portfolio approaches. In some cases, the portfolio is combined with an assessment centre.
Several types of validation arrangements offered in Austria are closely linked to the labour market, and some are also closely linked to CVET. Examples include (cf. Mayerl & Schlögel, 2015; Luomi-Messerer, 2014): entry requirements for regulated occupations, collective agreements including regulations for the recognition of informally gained competences, certification of competences of individuals (personal certification), supporting company personnel development and supporting low-qualified people in obtaining a qualification outside the formal system. In these cases, candidates must usually provide evidence of professional experience. Furthermore, some initiatives target migrants or refugees specifically. For example, the Public Employment Service in Vienna has launched a pilot project called ‘competence check’ that aims to promote their fast integration into the labour market and include the identification and validation of participants’ competences by conducting competence tests in real work places (enterprises).
Austria is beginning to grant non-formal and informal learning contexts the same value as formal learning processes. The NQF development process takes into account qualifications acquired in non-formal and informal learning. However, results have shown that terminologies need further sharpening (e.g. ‘qualification’, ‘qualification provider’ etc.) and that many institutions awarding non-formal qualifications need further assistance in describing their qualifications in terms of learning outcomes in order to comply with the NQF requirements.
Currently, Austria does not have an explicit national credit transfer system. However, there are credit arrangements in the form of regulations governing the crediting of learning outcomes if learners change between education and training institutions and/or levels. Most of these regulations refer to credits given for learning duration and are based on a comparison of curricula or training plans (Tritscher-Archan & Nowak (eds) 2011, 16). Until recently, the European Credit Transfer System for Vocational Education and Training (ECVET) was only used as an instrument to support transnational mobility. However the Austrian ECVET strategy launched in 2014 (BMBF, 2014) emphasizes that ECVET should not only be used for supporting mobility but also in the national lifelong learning context for facilitating permeability and validation of non-formally and informally acquired competences.
Austria is well-equipped to operate a system of shared responsibility regarding VPL policy (Schneeberger, Petanovitsch and Schlögl, 2008). It divides its validation procedures between levels of state authority, private stakeholders and agencies of civil society. The responsibilities for the regulation, provision, financing and support of learning activities are divided between the national and provincial levels. The main role of the relevant ministries is to prepare and adopt the legal framework conditions for validation procedures. Social partners play a major role in the design of the legal, economic, and social framework conditions in Austria. Educational institutions organize or provide preparatory courses for exams, hold exams and design other procedures to validate prior learning, based on their respective quality assurance procedures, in order to issue certificates. In the case of exceptional admission to the final exam of the apprenticeship training, apprenticeship offices of the responsible economic chambers hold the exam. The ministries and social partners are the main actors in providing information, promotion and awareness–raising initiatives as well as commissioning evaluations. Counselling and guidance is, however, mainly provided by the relevant educational institutions. Universities play an important role in VPL strategy development.
Certifications of workplace training achievements are important instruments for human resource development in many large companies, including Spar Österreich, Porsche Austria and Xerox Austria (cf. Markowitsch & Jonach 2006; Luomi-Messerer 2014). In some cases, the certificates offered are structured according to different levels of achievements. They can be acquired based on work experience or in-house training, or by demonstrating the required knowledge, skills and competences. These certificates are very important on a company level, but usually do not have any connection with the formal educational system (cf. Markowitsch & Jonach, 2006).
Up until now, the approach to validation has been rather fragmented: various validation initiatives and arrangements exist side-by-side in an uncoordinated and unaligned manner. There are no common principles or general monitoring or follow-up measures and there is no single platform upon which users can find relevant information about all the different initiatives. The national validation strategy that is currently being developed in cooperation with stakeholders from various fields is expected to enhance coordination and coherency. It follows a more centralized approach but aims to take regional and local requirements into account and builds on experiences of existing validation initiatives at the same time.
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 Cf. https://www.sozialministerium.at/cms/site/attachments/1/4/3/CH3434/CMS1451900458557/soziale-themen_freiwilliges-engagement_bericht-zur-lage-und-zu-den-perspektiven-des-freiwilligen-engagements-in-oesterreich.pdf; see also Löffler, 2015, 107.
 Cf. BMI, 2013
 Cf. www.kompetenzprofil.at