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Reflections on Ireland's education/training policy making-process leading to the National Framework of Qualifications: national and international influences

Author - Thomas Duff


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Policy networks and policy borrowing

During the period from 1988 to the mid-1990s, there were study visits to Ireland by visiting education and training delegations from a range of countries and these were reciprocated by Irish delegations. Such visits enabled the establishment of policy networks which were valuable in facilitating the consideration of other policy approaches. In borrowing policy from other countries, however, care is needed to ensure the appropriateness to the 'borrowing' country and in reconciling them with other national social policies. A former Secretary-General of the DES, observed that: It was my view, in the context of us being a small country, that when embarking on a new policy initiative it is important to ascertain what is happening elsewhere. There is no shame in picking up good ideas from other countries. Of course these models must be viewed through your own lens; you cannot abstract away the differences. New Zealand was interesting to Irish policy-makers in a range of public policy areas because of issues of size and language. (Thornhill, interview with author) NZ's policy was especially interesting to Irish policy-makers. Exchange visits continued during the 1990s, and representatives of TEASTAS visited NZ in 1996 to study its education/training legislation. Ireland did not have the same manufacturing base as the UK whose education and training experience was different, so it was not an especially relevant model. But some other European countries might well have been more relevant, although they do not appear to have been seriously considered by the DES. By 1996, 'off-the-shelf' qualifications frameworks adopted in Australia and NZ were available and UK framework proposals had also emerged. In 1995, the qualifications framework introduced in Australia provided for twelve levels with credits assigned, each allowing transfer from certificates of education in schools, certificate to advanced diploma in vocational education and training and HE levels from diploma to doctorate.

TEASTAS and the consultative process

TEASTAS was established on an interim basis in September 1995. Its purpose was to achieve co-ordination of qualifications outside the universities and to establish a qualifications framework. With the establishment of TEASTAS, the consultative process took on a greater momentum. TEASTAS viewed lifelong learning as an important component in the framework, and envisaged it linking with school and university qualifications, thus providing a national system through which student progression would be facilitated. TEASTAS identified quality assurance; accreditation; access, progression and mobility; and international recognition as issues to be addressed (p4). In a second report (DES 1997c) there was an emphasis on the need for "a single national basis for co-ordinating, evaluating and comparing the quality of awards and the various systems that produce them" (p1). In explaining its philosophical context, the report stated that:

    a national frame of reference is fundamental to the achievement of access, progression and mobility for learners and a national basis for the comparability and recognition of awards. The resulting transparency will contribute to the continuous upgrading of the skills, knowledge and expertise of the population, which will be crucial for future economic wellbeing, social cohesion and personal development. (p1)
The aim of the then Minister for Education was to ensure that education and training providers worked closely with business interests, and stated that "human capital is being continually identified as one of the keys, if not the key, to our present prosperity" (p9). He also said the proposals were not simply as a "result of pressure from Brussels", but had been part of the National Development Plan agreed with the EU (p12). However, the Minister's comments do not reflect the undoubted influences of the EU, the OECD and the emerging Bologna Declaration (European Commission, 1999). The DES was a signatory to the latter which committed Ireland in the first decade of the third millennium to harmonise the architecture of European HE, and to:
    adopt a system of comparable degrees a qualifications framework;
    establish a system of credits;
    promote mobility;
    promote co-operation in quality assurance; and,
    promote a European dimension and co-operation in higher education. (p2)

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