The Portuguese education and training system – including policies and practices regarding the validation of non-formal and informal learning (VNFIL/RPL) – changed remarkably since 2012, due to impacts of the international financial crisis. After a steady pace of implementation and progress on adult education and training policies, in 2012, the Portuguese government decided to interrupt the implementation of the New Opportunities Initiative (the Iniciativa Novas Oportunidades  – an action plan that was implemented since 2007, on adult education and vocational education and training fields).
This decision (later on, formalized by the Portaria No.135-A/2013) has led also to the reduction, reorganization and reorientation of the existing network of New Opportunities Centres (452 Centros Novas Oportunidades – CNOs ), replacing them by the current Centres for Qualification and Vocational Education (Centros para a Qualificação e o Ensino Profissional - CQEPs). This has happened subsequently to the reorganization of the National Agency for Qualifications (Agência Nacional para a Qualificação - ANQ), into the National Agency for Qualification and Vocational Education (Agência Nacional para a Qualificação e o Ensino Profissional – ANQEP), with an increased focus on vocational education, rather than on adult education policies (Cedefop, 2014).
The ANQEP is the national public institution responsible for CQEPs’ coordination, management, financing and quality assurance mechanisms, as well as for the regulation of the vocational education and training (VET) offer, at the national level, and for implementing the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). It is also responsible for the design and implementation of the National System for Recognition, Validation and Certification of Competences (RVCC, meaning VNFIL/RPL processes). It enjoys administrative and financial autonomy and is jointly supervised by the Ministries in charge of labour affairs, of education affairs, and of economic affairs.
Challenges and opportunities
In comparison with other European countries, the qualifications and schooling levels of Portuguese citizens is significantly lower. Persistently high rates of early school leavers have resulted in a substantial stock of underqualified young people entering the labour market for more than four decades.
In recent years, the New Opportunities Initiative was the largest governmental programme aimed at massively upgrading the qualifications level and profile of the Portuguese population. The target-groups of this Initiative were two: youth at risk of early school leaving; and low-skilled adults with levels of education below than the upper-secondary. More than 450 CNOs were operational during this period country-wide. The results in terms of participation in lifelong learning and schooling levels achievement have been quite impressive, but still far from solving the problem of the accumulated stock of low skilled adults. The interruption of the operations of CNOs caused major delays in such an important area for social and economic development of the country.
In 2016, the current Government launched a new intervention called the Qualifying Program (Programa Qualifica), in order to resume the former dynamic of the 2008-2012 period. The Qualifying Program is also part of the national Economic Reform Program, which was submitted to the European Commission in late 2015. The main goal is to resuscitate and amplify the network of adult education and training providers, re-establish the national coverage of the VNFIL/RPL centres, and of course, to revitalize the RVCC processes as one of the main routes available for adult learners’ progression on their qualification pathways.
National standards, policy and framework activity
The state-funded CQEPs, although reduced in the number of operational units, have a broader responsibility than the previous CNOs. Their aim is to bridge the gap between education, training and employment by providing quality (career) guidance and counselling to both young people and adults, on schooling routes, VET programs and dual certification opportunities.
As already mentioned, these centres are not only targeting low-skilled adults, but also young individuals from 15 years of age. The legislation states that CQEPs can be established in public and private schools (general and vocational education schools), and vocational training centres, for which the Institute for Employment and Vocational Training is responsible. Enterprises or social partners can also establish CQEPs. Any public or private body with a track record in adult education and continuing training or skills’ assessment can apply to become an accredited Validation of Non-formal and Informal Learning (VNFIL) centre, although the public funding has been significantly reduced since 2012.
The CQEPs are responsible for the development of Validation processes (RVCC), which has two main routes – academic and vocational. The former serves adults who do not have basic or secondary education certificates, whereas the latter serves adults who do not have formal vocational qualifications. Through the vocational route, adult learners can choose between 280 different national qualifications from the National Catalogue of Qualifications (Catálogo Nacional de Qualificações ).
The RVCC processes – for both the academic and vocational routes – are an integral component of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), which is fully referenced to the European Qualifications Framework. This means that qualifications obtained through the RVCC processes correspond to the levels acquired in the formal education and training system, and provide access to the next levels of qualifications. Horizontal permeability within the system is also possible. Through the RVCC processes, NQF qualifications from levels one to four (the latter, equivalent to upper-secondary education, plus a vocational qualification) can be granted. For the academic route, Level 3 of qualification (upper-secondary education) can be granted through RVCC according to the key-competences standards for secondary education. The same applies for Levels 1 and 2 of qualifications, assessing the candidates against a key-competences standard for Basic Education.
The process is organized into four phases (Gomes e Simões, 2007):
- information and guidance (decision on the qualification pathway best fitting each individual candidate, either RVCC or a full adult education and training program);
- identification of competences and preparation of evidence documentation (dossier or portfolio);
- validation (assessment by subject-matter evaluators); and
- certification (issuance of certificates and diplomas, for both partial and full qualifications).
In the first phase, the individual is given information about the adult education and training system, and is interviewed by a counsellor to define the appropriate (best-fit) education and training pathway (it could be a RVCC process, an adult education and training course, or a modular short-training course), depending on each individual’s profile, and aims and expectations. Only candidates between 18 and 23 years of age and having three years of work experience can be forwarded to a RVCC process.
In the second phase, if the RVCC process has been indicated as the best route for the individual, he/she – with support of a counsellor if needed – constructs his/her personal dossier/portfolio containing evidences (documentary proof of competences) held in the key-competences standards or vocational competences standards.
In the third phase, the assessors (subject-matter teachers or vocational qualification specialised trainer) evaluate the dossiers/portfolios and validates the demonstrated competences (always against the national standards), and decide if the candidate needs further training to complete the full certification, or he/she needs to be sent for a formal education and training course after a partial certification is awarded. In both cases, the candidate presents his/her dossier/portfolio to a jury, which includes also an external assessor, and who is responsible for the final decision on the candidates’ certification.
The awarded certification (partial or full) is registered in the Individual Competences Booklet, which is an online system accessible to learners, and if the candidate wishes to do so, also to the providers, and employers. In the case of a partial certification, the RVCC counsellor assists the individual in finding the right career path or further education and training programs. In the case of being awarded a full qualification, the RVCC awards a certificate that officially recognizes the competences acquired and a diploma for the respective qualification level within the NQF. (EAEA, 2011)
At the level of higher education, the validation process is linked to the European Credit System, which means that students receive ECTS points for the approved competences that they can use for exemptions from parts of a course. The legislation has set a limit to the validation process in such a way that maximum one-third of a degree programme can be obtained through validation. At this level, there is no national institution in charge of the validation process. The individual universities are responsible for the validation process as well as for allocating their own funding to finance it (Cedefop, 2014).
The legal Act of 2013 on the establishment of CQEPs stresses the importance of partnerships and strong cooperation between employers, vocational education and training institutions, third sector organizations and public sector organizations during the validation process.
Relevant stakeholders, including social partners, are involved in the coordination and cost sharing of continuing training for adults. According to the Labour Code, enshrined in law by the Parliament, employers must contribute to the upskilling of their employees, with at least 10 per cent of their permanent contract employees participating in training courses and to assert the right of every worker to receive a minimum of 35 hours of certified training each year.
Carneiro, R. 2011. Accreditation of prior learning as a lever for lifelong learning: lessons learned from the New Opportunities Initiative, Portugal. Braga, Publito; Hamburg, UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning; MENON Network, and Study Centre for Peoples and Cultures (CEPCEP), Portuguese Catholic University.
CEDEFOP, 2014. European inventory on validation of non-formal and informal learning 2014: country report Portugal. http://www.cedefop.europa.eu/en/events-and-projects/projects/validation-non-formal-and-informal-learning/european-inventory (Accessed 20 November 2015).
European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA). 2011. Country report on adult education in Portugal. http://www.eaea.org/media/resources/ae-in-europe/portugal_country-report-on-adult-education-in-portugal.pdf (Accessed 27 November 2015).
Gomes, M. 2006. Referencial de competências-chave para a educação e formação de adultos–nível secundário. Lisboa, Direcção Geral de Formação Vocacional (DGFV).
Gomes, M. and Simões, M.F. 2007. Carta de qualidade dos Centros Novas Oportunidades. Lisboa, Agência Nacional para a Qualificação (ANQ).
Milagre, C, Simões, M.F. and Gomes, M. 2011. Guiding and counselling adults in Portugal: new opportunities for a qualification. Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union.
UNEVOC. New Opportunities Initiative - Portugal. http://www.unevoc.unesco.org/fileadmin/user_upload/pubs/New%20Opportunities%20-%20Portugal.pdf (Accessed September 2016).
Maria do Carmo Gomes
European Training Foundation
 The New Opportunities Initiative was a governmental action plan, elaborated jointly by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labour and Social Solidarity, back in 2006, which has made possible the engagement of more than 1.6 million adult learners, and the certification of around half million low-skilled adults, in the period 2006-2012), representing a very important programme implemented in Portugal in the adult education and training field (Carneiro, Roberto (coordinator), 2011). The objective of the initiative was to give low-qualified workers the opportunity to obtain an elementary or secondary education diploma, and/or a vocational qualification (which in combination would allow the awarding of a double certification), combining VNFIL/RPL routes, with modular short-training courses, or full adult education and training programs. As such, it was recognized as a good example of a formal recognition of informal and non-formal qualifications within the Portuguese national education and training system, which built upon the experience of the previous RVCC centers, established since 2000. More information available at http://www.unevoc.unesco.org/fileadmin/user_upload/pubs/New%20Opportunities%20-%20Portugal.pdf
 The New Opportunities Centers provided public adult education and training offers, mainly through the Validation of Non-formal and Informal Learning (VNFIL) routes, that were equivalent to grades nine (lower-secondary education) and twelve (upper-secondary education), as well as vocational certification in more than 100 occupational profiles. Moreover, a national standard for recognition, validation and certification of skills at upper-secondary education (Gomes, 2006), was adopted for VNFIL/RPL routes and Adult Educational and Training Courses.
 The ANQ had previously been responsible for VNFIL/RPL coordination – both academic and vocational components – at the level of elementary and secondary education, and vocational qualifications.
 The Portuguese National Register of Qualifications is available online, and permanently updated though the operations of the Sectoral Committees, which can be consulted at http://www.catalogo.anqep.gov.pt/