The Bologna Process, a reform process at European level which 48 countries adhere to and which created the European Higher Education Area - EHEA in 2010, in line with its principles, has established as one of its principle goals the establishment of National Qualifications Frameworks, as seen in the Berlin Communique produced by the Ministers of the countries adhering to the Process: the participating nations are encouraged to elaborate a National Framework of their own higher education qualifications divided into three cycles, known as the National Qualifications Framework – NQF. This tool has the objective of describing every qualification in terms of work-load for students, level, learning outcomes, competences and profiles, with the aim of a more correct legibility and comparability of qualifications in the different systems. The framework will, moreover, serve to present an image of all qualifications present in Europe for third countries, with the aim of succinctly presenting the entire education offering on a European level.
The Bologna Process Qualifications Framework is set at different levels, called “cycles” which are based on an equal number of learning outcomes, called Dublin Descriptors. Produced by a group of experts after the Prague Ministerial Conference (2001), they are generic inasmuch as they can be applied to a vast range of disciplines and profiles as well as taking into account the multiple articulations possible between the national higher education systems. The Dublin Descriptors are, therefore, general statements of the typical results obtained by students who have achieved a qualification after having successfully completed a defined cycle of studies. They should be interpreted as requirements and represent neither thresholds nor minimum standards, and furthermore are certainly not exhaustive. The descriptors aim at identifying the nature of a qualification in its entirety. They have no disciplinary nature and are not confined to defined academic or professional areas.
The Bologna Process provides that, in all countries, study at the level of higher education should be articulated in three cycles:
- a first cycle with a minimum length of three years – from 180 to 240 ECTS credits;
- a second cycle with a length of one or two years – from 60 to 120 ECTS credits;
- a third cycle of doctorate studies which does not necessarily need to be expressed in the form of credits (the length of doctoral studies in the majority of countries is three years). It is normal that accession to this cycle occurs after the overall accumulation of 300 ECTS credits – around five years of study.
In general terms, the qualifications corresponding to each cycle guarantee access to the next cycle, taking into account the internal regulations established by the various legislations of the member countries. In a single cycle various types of courses may be included with differing lengths, different educational objectives and may be characterized by a leaning more towards the academic or towards the professional.
The EHEA QF deals exclusively with qualifications referring to the higher education sector based on three cycles of study, namely those qualifications which are accessed upon completion of secondary school education – traditionally associated with university level study. Furthermore, such a framework is based on the concept of “credits”, namely a unit of measurement to establish the necessary commitment in terms of work-hours to obtain a qualification, or also the “weight” in terms of hours for every qualification. The credit system used by the Bologna Process QF is the ECTS - European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System.