Implementing National Qualifications Frameworks: Monitoring Quality and Relevance in Bhutan
For many countries in the Asia-Pacific region, higher education systems have struggled to adequately respond to the challenges of COVID-19, including provision of quality online and blended learning and the need to offer more flexible, outcome-driven approaches to student learning. On 11 February 2022, UNESCO met with the Quality Assurance and Accreditation Division (QAAD) of the Department of Adult and Higher Education, Bhutan Ministry of Education, and a newly formed taskforce to help address emerging challenges and opportunities for the country. Together with UNESCO, the taskforce is planning the review of the Bhutan Qualifications Framework (BQF) which was launched a decade ago (2012). The aim of the review is to improve the relevance of Bhutan’s qualification system, with special attention to the new realities of online learning and the growing need among learners for the development of transversal skills. As a result of the meeting, a new action plan and timeline for the review of the BQF is currently being revised for follow-up by June 2022.
During the consultation, Mr. Libing Wang, Chief of Section for Educational Innovation and Skills Development at UNESCO’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, was asked to address four major themes. An excerpt from his prepared remarks is below.
- What is the importance of a National Qualifications Framework?
Libing Wang: Although designed and rolled out originally in the UK mainly targeting the TVET sub-sector some 30 years ago, National Qualifications Frameworks have now become a key external quality assurance tool to benchmark learning outcomes (LOs) and the ways to achieve LOs for the whole education sector, including TVET and higher education. The importance of this policy tool can be multi-dimensional, including, among others:
First, it can help facilitate a fundamental paradigm shift of quality assurance from input-driven to process and outputs-driven, an important regional trend that was recognized in the Shenzhen Statement, the outcome document of the Asia-Pacific Regional Conference on Quality Assurance in Higher Education, which UNESCO organized in Shenzhen, China, in 2017.
Second, with vertical and progressive levels and level descriptors, it can provide an overarching framework to inform the development of operational learning outcomes for specific learning programmes across different levels and types of learning, to increase the internal coherence of learning contents, and avoid possible learning fragmentation.
Third, with the requirement of engaging all stakeholders, the implementation process of the NQF at subject, professional and occupational levels is a process for consensus building among the supply and demand sides, to increase the coherence of learning contents with external actors and to overcome the long-problematic issue of skills mismatch.
Finally, it can make all types of learning programmes – whether formal or non-formal, campus-based, community-based, home-based, workplace-based, off-line, on-line or blended – comparable, compatible, and transferrable with others based on learning outcomes; thus it contributes toward the development of more agile, flexible, relevant, and diversified provisions of education, including higher education.
Each of these elements contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG4 on quality education. We must ensure that the BQF supports the achievement of SDG4 Target 3, which says: ‘By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university’.
- What might be the most effective approaches toward developing an NQF?
Libing Wang: There is no shortcut to the development of a meaningful NQF, which requires extensive engagement and consultation processes. International experience and expertise can be useful sources for initial mapping and conceptualization, providing a broad basis for national adaptation and localization, but the domestic consultation with all stakeholders is the key to securing its relevance, sustainability, and local ownership.
As the only UN agency with a mandate in higher education, UNESCO is in a good position to mobilize both human and financial resources to support national priorities, such as this request from Bhutan. We believe that our needs-based interventions are more relevant, sustainable, and foster strong local ownership and commitment. We would like to add value to your domestic processes by bringing in more international expertise in quality assurance in higher education.
The NQF development process should also be a process of broad stakeholders’ consultation so that the NQF is the collective knowledge product of all concerned, rather than a few international and domestic consultants. What we would like to see is continuous top-down and bottom-up processes in which deduction and induction can nurture each other in a mutually supportive way.
However, the development of NQF is just the beginning of a long and continuous journey for its implementation at subject, professional and occupational levels. It’s quite clear NQFs are only on paper until they are used by faculty members in their programme development and course planning processes. Internalization of external quality standards such as NQF needs a supportive ecosystem to empower and incentivize HEIs and faculty to move in the same direction.
- How might we strengthen the link between NQFs and QAs?
Libing Wang: The NQFs are one of the key external QA frameworks, as they focus on defining learning outcomes and the ways to achieve those outcomes. Therefore, NQFs are directly related to the quality of teaching and learning programmes offered by HEIs. For higher education programmes to be quality assured through the implementation of the NQFs, the following strategies can be very helpful:
First, it’s easy to have NQFs on paper, with levels and level descriptors. However, they only provide generic requirements on the LOs for different levels of learning and should be concretized into the subject, professional and occupational-specific quality standards, or benchmark statements, both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.
The process can be long and expensive, as engaging all stakeholders takes time and resources to get their inputs, endorsement, and final buy-in. Countries can start the process with some key subject, professional or occupational areas, and plan their medium- and long-term work plans according to their readiness and available resources.
Second, based on the well-developed and widely endorsed subject, professional, or occupational quality standards or benchmark statements, programme development tools should be crafted to help faculties to develop their learning programmes accordingly. This is the key step to getting external quality requirements internalized into the workflows and templates of learning programme development and updating within HEIs.
Third, with each of the above upstream frameworks and tools in place, the operational course planning tools can be developed to empower individual faculty members and align their work consistently and coherently under the common academic infrastructure. Only then can the last mile of delivery from NQF to the operational routine of the faculty members be secured.
- Why is the alignment of the NQF to the regional framework important?
Libing Wang: Alignment of NQFs with regional and sub-regional frameworks is important, as it is itself a key indicator for the levels of internationalization of a higher education system. Specifically, international alignment can bring in a lot of benefits that contribute to the quality enhancement of higher education provisions in a country.
First, it will help establish a mentality or a culture of always looking outward and looking for international norms and best practices, which is necessary for any higher education system if it is to keep improving and remaining connected with the rest of the world. UNESCO’s Tokyo Convention and Global Convention on recognition can help to build this culture of quality through promoting transparency and information sharing about Bhutan’s education system. In this regard, today’s meeting is part of the building of Bhutan’s culture of quality so that your students feel empowered with qualifications that are quality assured, relevant, and fairly recognized in the world of work and society.
Second, alignment of the BQF with regional frameworks can ensure that NQFs are not only domestically relevant but also regionally and internationally comparable and even compatible with other systems, and thus serve to lay a solid foundation for mutual recognition of qualifications with other countries in the region.
Third, with QA-based recognition of qualification for further studies well promoted, cross-border mobility of students both inbound and outbound can be boosted, which surely contributes to the access, quality, and equity of higher education provision in the participating countries.
That’s basically what I would like to share with you today, and thank you, again, for your attention and support. I am looking forward to hearing the interventions from Ms. Andrea Bateman, as well as to joining the Q&A session later. Thank you for your support and leadership in this critical area.
For questions or comments, please contact UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, Section for Educational Innovation and Skills Development (EISD): email@example.com.