The development of validation practices in Switzerland can be divided into two main phases. The first phase comprises the 1990’s focus on projects and pilot projects in local areas. The second phase comprises the progressive centralization and institutionalization of validation practices with the VET Act of 2002, in force since 2004. The Federal Act provided the legal basis for the elaboration of comprehensive guidelines, piloted since 2010 in different professional areas of initial VET qualifications. This has resulted in validation being promoted from both a bottom-up, decentralized approach and a top-down, national approach. Historically, the extent of development of validation policies and practices has varied remarkably between the different regions in Switzerland, depending on the activities of various organizations engaged with validation practices. The French speaking region started the implementation process earlier than other regions and also offers the most opportunities for adults to have their prior knowledge recognized (Cedefop, 2014b).
Challenges and opportunities
Challenges regarding the development of a Swiss system for validation of non-formal and informal learning can be attributed to a number of key national factors. An important factor is the federalism of the twenty-six decentralized cantons, all of which have sovereignty regarding political measures. A second factor is quadrilingualism, reflected in the four different linguistic regions. A third factor is the complexity of the Swiss education sector, meaning that organization and decision-making practices are based on trilateral arrangements involving the Confederation, cantons and social partners, who all play a key role in defining regulations and professional profiles. These factors also influence validation practices, as social partners and cantons are free to decide to what extent they implement national regulations and guidelines. Although the reorganization of the educational sector and an enhanced political emphasis on validation practices and regulations have led to increased development of a structured validation system, system commencement and concrete practices remain underdeveloped and, in many professional sectors, practically absent.
National standards, policy and framework activity
No overall binding legislation regarding validation practices has been introduced in Switzerland. A national legal framework on validation has only been established in the Vocational Education and Training (VET) system. The Federal Vocational and Professional Education and Training Act of 2002 (VPETA, SR 412.10) caters for qualification procedures to validate prior learning. Individuals who have acquired competences outside the formal education and training system can obtain a federally recognized qualification. Access to a qualification is a right that every individual can claim, and the requirements are 5 years of work experience and proof of required competences. Validation of prior learning is one of the least practiced routes for gaining a qualification as an adult. The most popular pathway is still a dual apprenticeship with adult participation in professional exams with preparatory training, in accordance with Art. 33 of the VPETA. The Federal Ordinance of 2003 on Vocational and Professional Education and Training (VPETO, SR 412.101), concerned with both VET and higher vocational education and training (PET), stresses that cantonal authorities shall decide whether an individual may shorten the duration of the VET/PET programme and the work-based training. Moreover, it stresses that examining bodies decide whether an individual may be admitted to qualification procedures in the form of a summative assessment of professional competences (examinations) or to the validation of non-formal and informal qualification procedures.
Regarding validation practices in the Swiss higher education sector, educational standards are specified by the Swiss National Qualification Framework (Qualifikationsrahmen für den schweizerischen Hochschulbereich, NQF CH-HS). The NQF CH-HS is linked to the outcome-based European Credit Transfer System.
Regarding validation in the sectors of VET, PET and continuing professional qualifications, national educational standards refer to the ‘Nationaler Qualifikationsrahmen Schweiz’ (NQR-CH) and are provided for all qualifications and diplomas (Cedefop, 2014a). Additionally, the VET validation process refers to the following:
- The qualification profile, including a list of required skills, which must be validated for each particular profession. Individuals can use this list to compare their skills and competences against the required ones, and validation experts can assess whether or not the individual has reached the respective level;
- The Language, Communication and Society subjects (LCS) in the VET profile, including personal and social competences. The individual confirms that he/she possesses the required skills and competences for the profession as well as for the management of daily operations;
- The assessment, validation, and certification standards are defined according to the qualification profile and LCS requirements.
The State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) – the national agency in charge of education – has issued National Validation Guidelines that distinguish five phases of the validation process. See Figure 1 below.
Figure 1: The five phases of a validation process in Swiss upper-secondary VET
Source: Cedefop, 2014b
- In the first phase, counsellors give candidates information and advice on the validation process and procedures.
- In the second phase, individuals carry out a self-assessment of competences based on a competency profile whereby the individual’s competences are compared to the various standards required for the given occupation or course.
- In the third phase – after self-assessment is completed – the individual collects the necessary documentation and compiles an assessment portfolio together with the self-assessment material. In some cases, experts interview the candidate to determine his/her knowledge and may ask the individual to demonstrate practical skills.
- In the fourth phase, experts examine the portfolio. If gaps exist in the individual’s knowledge or skill level, a partial certification is granted. Then the individual must undertake supplementary training to obtain a full qualification.
- In the final phase, full certification in the form of a formal qualification is issued once all modules have been recognized.
It is worth mentioning that an individual can enter the formal assessment phase in the VET sector without having undertaken the first two phases. However, it is not possible to enter the certification phase without having firstly undertaken the assessment phase. In the higher education sector, the phases of validation are not organized as thoroughly as in the VET sector. The identification and documentation phases are structured differently and according to different degrees. It is not yet possible to access phases of assessment and certification directly, as it is in the VET sector.
Regarding the third sector, a national project implemented in 2001 in the social and health sectors focussed on identifying and documenting volunteer work by developing validation dossiers. Thus, the validation process takes volunteer work into account in these sectors.
With respect to labour market policies, nationally recognized competence assessment centres use portfolios and self-assessment material as incorporated tools to identify jobseeker perspectives and to shorten periods of unemployment. The results of these portfolios are often included in a report and delivered to counsellors working in regional unemployment centres. These counsellors guide individuals in the direction of a suitable job or continuing training.
Since 2013, SERI has been in charge of all federal level education matters. SERI is the main authority responsible for assuring that validation projects are carried out according to the legislation and educational framework. Launched at the end of 2015, SERI is an initiative aiming to revise the National Guidelines, making them more flexible and attractive for beneficiaries and stakeholders. This is because the first phase of implementation showed that existing procedures are often rigid and discouraging.
In the VET system, cantons are responsible for adult qualification procedures. Based on the National Validation Guidelines, cantons cooperate with social partners to develop qualification standards and to validate non-formal and informal learning, in order to secure a clear link between the VET qualifications and the labour market.
In PET, social partners and third sector organizations initiate validation projects mostly by using a bottom-up approach. SERI must approve these projects. The bottom-up approaches also account for the validation of non-formal and informal learning in the higher education system. However, in this sector, the universities themselves initiate the validation projects according to the existing legal framework (Cedefop, 2014b).
CEDEFOP. 2014a. European inventory on NQF 2014: Switzerland. http://www.cedefop.europa.eu/files/nqf_developments_2014_switzerland.pdf (Accessed 1 December 2015).
CEDEFOP, 2014b. European inventory on validation of non-formal and informal learning 2014. http://www.cedefop.europa.eu/en/publications-and-resources/country-reports/validation-switzerland-2014 (Accessed 1 December 2015).
EHB. Validation of prior learning. http://www.ehb-schweiz.ch/en/researchanddevelopment/services/Pages/validationofpriorlearning.aspx. (Accessed 1 December 2015).
Bednarz, F. and Bednarz, G.
Ticino's Cantonal Office for VET