HomeThe notion of giving credit in higher education for learning that takes place outside the university was first raised by the European Commission in the Memorandum on Higher Education in the European Community (1991), issued by the then Task Force on Human Resouces, Education, Training, Youth:
‘The mainstreaming of continuing education raises a number of essential academic issues which must be resolved. Foremost among these is the question of access and the basis on which continuing education students and mature students generally are admitted to higher education courses. The positive policies which are to be observed in some institutions and which give credit for maturity and for knowledge and experience gained in the labour market would need to be adopted on a wider scale, as would the provision of preparatory courses which supply the basic preparation relevant to embarking on a particular course of higher education.' (p24)
It next appeared in 1995 in a White paper which stated that the identification and validation were an important part of realising lifelong learning, in particular making visible is learned outside formal education and training, recognising a diversity of learning situations and settings and looking for credibility and authenticity of such learning.
This orientation was confirmed in 2000 in documents launching the lifelong learning perspective. The Memorandum on Lifelong Learning published by the Commission on 30 October 2000 ("Commission Staff Working Document: A Memorandum on Lifelong Learning") states: "lifelong learning sees all learning as a seamless continuum from cradle to grave". It identifies "three basic categories of purposeful learning activities":
- formal learning takes place in education and training institutions, leading to recognised diplomas and qualifications;
- non-formal learning takes place alongside the mainstream systems of education and training and does not typically lead to formalised certificates. Non-formal learning may be provided in the workplace and through the activities of civil society organisations and groups;
- informal learning is a natural accompaniment to everyday life. Unlike formal and non-formal learning, informal learning is not necessarily intentional learning.
These intentions were confirmed by the Communication from the Commission published one year later, on 21 November 2001, "Making a European area of lifelong learning a reality" after a European wide consultation of governments and stakeholders. The Commission gave its definition of lifelong learning "all learning activities undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competences within a personal, civic, social and/or employment related perspective. The breadth of this definition also draws attention to the full range of formal, non formal and informal learning activity". And the Commission announced that initiatives would be taken by the end of 2002 initiating a systematic exchange of experience and good practice in the field of identification, assessment and recognition of non formal learning.
Since then, more or less all documents on Lisbon, Bologna and Copenhagen Processes have referred to this intention, reflecting the increasing political attention given to learning that takes place outside education and training organisations.
In the Copenhagen declaration, the European Ministers of Education and Training stated that there was a need to "develop a set of common principles regarding validation of non formal and informal learning with the aim of ensuring greater comparability between approaches in different countries and at different levels".
In the Berlin Communiqué, Ministers responsible for Higher Education stated that they were taking steps "to enhance the possibilities for lifelong learning at higher education level including the recognition of prior learning. They emphasise that such action must be an integral part of higher education activity".
In the Report from the Education Council to the European Council "on the concrete future objectives of education and training systems" which set out the contribution of education and training to the Lisbon Process, it identified the need for "inclusive and coherent education and training systems, which are attractive both for young people and adults, as well as a strategy which overcomes the traditional barriers between various parts of formal education and training and non-formal and informal learning". And the 10 year workplan stipulated that Member States should "develop ways for the official validation of non formal learning experiences".
The preoccupation with the formal recognition of non-formal and informal learning has not been developed with the introduction of Lifelong learning in the European agenda. Numerous experiments and activities have been initiated since the 1980's, especially in UK and in France. Assessment of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL) or Assessment of Prior Learning (APL) in UK or Validation des acquis personnels et professionnels in France (1985 Decree) have been promoted by pioneering universities or higher education institutions in order to facilitate access to higher education or to offer exemptions for part of programmes for people who do not have the required qualifications.
First Experiments

These initiatives have also been supported by the European programmes (such as Leonardo da Vinci) through opportunities for exchanges, sharing good practice, comparative analysis and dissemination. In 1994, the CEDEFOP launched a first comparative study of experience in France and in the UK, which was continued on broader basis in 1997. The main objective of the CEDEFOP project - "Identification, validation and accreditation of prior learning" - was to gather, analyse and disseminate experience.

- CEDEFOP (1994/1996) "Identification and accreditation of skills and knowledge acquired through life and work experience"
- CEDEFOP (1997) Identification and validation of prior and informal learning: experiences, innovations and dilemmas"
- Jens Bjornavold/CEDEFOP: "Making learning visible", 2000, N. Evans (eds) "Experiential Learning around the world : employability and the global economy", 2000.
The process of adoption of common principles started in Copenhagen in 2002. In Copenhagen 31 Ministers of Education and Training, the European social partners and the Commission stated that there was a need to develop "a set of common principles regarding validation of non formal and informal learning with the aim of ensuring greater comparability between approaches in different countries and at different levels". This reflects the conclusions of the European Conference on validation of non-formal and informal learning in Oslo in May 2002.
Common principles

An expert group was appointed by the Commission in February 2003 which produced its final proposal 03 March 2004 ("Common European Principles for validation of non-formal and informal learning, final proposal from the Working Group H"). 
This proposal was followed by a proposition of the Commission in May 2004 and by the Draft conclusions of the Council and of representatives of the Governments of the Member States on 18 May 2004 leading to the adoption of "common principles". They stressed that "common principles are necessary to encourage and guide the development of high-quality, trustworthy approaches and systems for the identification and validation of non-formal and informal learning ...and to ensure the comparability and wide acceptance of different approaches and systems". And they invited the Member States and the Commission to disseminate and promote the use of the Common European Principles:
- To encourage social partners to use and adapt them for the specific needs of the workplace
- To encourage NGOs providing LLL opportunities to use and adapt them as appropriate
- To support the exchange of experiences and mutual learning
- To strengthen co-operation with international organisations to achieve synergies
- To develop and support coherent and comparable ways of presenting the results of the identification and validation at European level
- To consider how instruments in the Europass framework can contribute to this
- To consider how these principles can contribute to the development of a European Qualifications Framework
- To support the development of quality assurance mechanisms, to disseminate good practices.
This was confirmed in the final Communiqué of the Conference of European Ministers of Education in Oslo in June 2004, "Lifelong learning from rhetoric to reality". The EU Council conclusions on European principles for identification and validation of non-formal and informal learning were to be used as reference point and baseline when exploring and developing suitable practical national solutions. The European Ministers supported the emphasis in these Principles on the entitlement of individual citizens to identification and validation of their non-formal and informal learning, the importance of involving all relevant stakeholders in this process, and the need for quality assurance mechanisms to ensure credibility and trust.
European guidelines

A Cluster on "Recognition of Learning Outcomes" was set up by the Commission in the context of Education and Training 2010 monitors the implementation of the Common Principles. On the basis of the conclusions of several peer learning discussions a new step has now been proposed with the definition of European Guidelines to support "quality improvement in validation processes" and "to enhance the compatibility and comparability of validation processes across institutional, regional and national boarders".
This proposition was presented and discussed during the Lisbon Conference "Valuing learning: European experiences in validating non-formal and informal learning" on 26-27 November 2007. This draft proposition will now be introduced through the normal procedure for adopting European documents.

Four inventories of validation of non formal and informal learning practices in Europe are now available.
The first inventory was produced in 2000 by Jens Bjornavold, "Making learning visible - identification, assessment and recognition of non-formal learning in Europe". This report listed the existing practices in European countries and identified 5 models: Austro-German, Mediterranean, Nordic, NVQ, and Franco-Belgian.
The second inventory was produced by Danielle Collardyn and Jens Bjornavold in 2003, "Validation of non-formal and informal learning, a European Inventory, National policies and Practises". It was presented as an introduction of Group H's reflection. According to this inventory considerable development can be observed, since 2000. An increasing number of countries have introduced legal and institutional frameworks making possible validation of non-formal and informal learning on a permanent basis and as an integrated part of existing education and training systems. But in practice, the validation of non-formal and informal still appeared only as small islands in the ocean.
The third inventory and fourth inventory were produced by ECOTEC Research and Consulting in 2005 and 2007.  In the introduction to its first Inventory, ECOTEC stated that "in spite of numerous valuable contributions, existing information on validation of non-formal and informal learning is still rather limited in scope in many countries, and too widely spread in academic publications, policy papers". So, the objective of the European Inventory was to make non-formal and informal learning more visible "by collecting updated information on current practices and making this information, including best practices examples, available within a single volume to a wide range of audiences". The Inventory consisted of National reports on the "state of art" in every European country covering Vocational Education and Training, Higher Education and third sector and of an overview of findings.
Initiatives and practice

Validation of non-formal and informal learning has probably been one of the most debated issues of education and training policies at European level. It is impossible to mention all projects, conferences, initiatives and publications developed during recent years.
EUCEN is one important contributor in the debates, notably at higher education level. In addition to presentations in numerous conferences, two projects managed by EUCEN - Transfine and Refine - proposed important contributions to the development of validation of non formal and informal learning. Transfine was a "Joint action project" funded by DGEAC to set up innovative approaches establishing transversal procedures between different types of training and learning programmes, at different level, offering several types of partnership. The main objective was to explore ways to build a system of transfer and accumulation of learning credits for lifelong learning, integrating formal, non formal and informal learning. As a result, Transfine proposed a European methodological framework for the recognition of non formal and informal learning and demonstrated that many existing tools at European or national level could be adapted for this purpose.
Refine, was a follow up to Transfine. The aim was to test the tools for a European methodological framework for the recognition of non-formal and informal learning. The main result was a proposal for ‘Validpass', designed to be a framework portfolio of flexible tools to facilitate and promote the recognition and validation of non-formal and informal learning.  It was proposed as a complementary element of  EUROPASS, attempting to overcome some of the limits of the current documents included in EUROPASS for this purpose, and particularly to take into account volunteer activities.
A third strategic project, OBSERVAL, finished in October 2010. The aim of this project, which involved 24 country teams, was to provide a complementary approach to the one developed by ECOTEC. The Leonardo network Project created a European Observatory on validation of non formal and informal practices and results in European countries. The objectives were to collect and update data on regulations, arrangements, standards and references, methods and tools, results and statistics, to review national debates and discussions, links with other  European initiatives (NQF-EQF, learning outcomes, adult education action plan,...), to identify good practice (case studies), to provide an nannotated bibliography and literature review (researches, surveys, reports,...) and to present these documents on a website in a common format that will allow both comparison and articulation between practice in different countries, sectors and contexts.
A follow up project, OBSERVAL-Net, started in December 2011. OBSERVAL-Net has developed a new observatory that collects and enhances the data from OBSERVAL, focuses on 3 main areas of VNIL (Bottom Up, the VNIL Profession and Work-Based Competence development and recognition), allows users to upload new reports, case studies, etc and gives them the opportunity to exchange with other VNIL professionals. Other projects: Euroguideval.