This section presents, first, what we define as the “low road” policies and public systems for immigrants’ NFIL validation, which prevails in many European countries with regard to most immigrant groups. Second, it presents some examples of validation initiatives and projects which do aim to take the specificities of immigrants into account. Third, it identifies the emergence of a “high road” for the validation of’ NFIL for individuals who are defined as “high-skilled”, based on market logics, rather than epistemological, pedagogical or competence-based logic. Finally, it outlines alternative explanations for the prevalence of the “low road“.
The low road to validation for immigrants
Migrants and refugees are not a dominant user group in the area of validation in Europe. Our analysis of a selection of the 124 EU-funded projects from the EVE database reveals that only 6 explicitly mention “migrants” in their abstracts. Thirteen projects were related to the development of validation practices on mobility projects.Footnote 6 While their work in the area of mobility may result in solutions which are relevant to at least some types of immigrants, their primary focus was not on immigrants. At this point, we take a closer look at individual European countries to find out whether there are any discernible differences among them.
Figure 1 shows responses to Question 23 of the 2014 European Inventory country fiche: “Which are the dominant user groups of validation opportunities in your country?” The majority of the countries analysed have validation arrangements in place which target employees in specific sectors of the economy, or applicants to formal or adult education. Immigrants/refugees are, on the other hand, only reported as a dominant user group in 7Footnote 7 out of the 24 country fiches for which information on this issue was available. An analysis of the proportion of immigrants in individual European countries (Eurostat 2014a, b) revealed only a weak association between immigration levels and the identification of immigrants/refugees as a dominant user group in the area of validation. Sweden, Ireland and Belgium have relatively high migration levels in the European context, but in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands rates are more modest.
However, the results do suggest a geographical division of countries. Those countries which have immigrants and refugees as a dominant user group in the area of validation tend to be Central European countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands) or Anglo-Saxon countries (Ireland). By contrast, those countries where immigrants and refugees are not dominant user groups tend to be Southern and Eastern European countries. For Nordic countries the situation is mixed, as they feature more evenly in both groups.
Immigrants might be also part of the other categories, and able to benefit from the robust general validation systems which some European countries have. But, as Table 2 shows, in the majority of countries no particular attention seems to be given specifically to immigrants who, as we have already discussed, have specific needs in the validation process. Only 10 country fiches noted validation projects or targeted measures specifically aimed at immigrants. In Ireland, where immigrants were identified as a dominant user group, no targeted measures were reported; immigrants use the systems available to nationals. But in all other countries where immigrants were defined as a dominant user group, the reports identified specific measures designed for immigrants.
On the whole, our analysis reveals that in the majority of European countries immigrants are on a “low road” to validation, where they are not a dominant user group and there are few measures targeting their needs.
This section presents some examples of validation initiatives and projects which do aim to take the specificities of immigrants into account. Seventeen of 35Footnote 8
European Inventory (2014 update) reports contain a total of 30 passages referring to “immigrants”. This contrasts with 122 instances of appearance, across virtually all reports, of the term “unemployed” as well as numerous references to “low-skilled” individuals – while some immigrants may fall into these categories, many others will not. Moreover, many high-skilled immigrants will still have specific needs which are different from those of host-country nationals. A high proportion of the references to immigrants (12) related to specific projects (which generally address very concrete aspects and are fixed-term) primarily targeting this group, rather than to national policies directed specifically at immigrants (see also Diedrich 2013a; Guo and Andersson 2006).
The material shows that in some cases immigrants do receive specific support during validation processes. For example, in Austria, the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Labour Social Affairs and Consumer Protection launched an information initiative in 2012 for professional recognition [Berufsanerkennung] targeting immigrants. A websiteFootnote 9 provides information about the acceptance and recognition of vocational qualifications or professional experience acquired in other countries, and counselling is offered at dedicated information centres. There are other project initiatives which target low-qualified individuals, with a focus on immigrants. An example of this is the “You have skills [Du kannst was!!]” initiative, also in Austria, a pilot project in two provinces directed at individuals, in particular immigrants, with a low level of qualifications.Footnote 10 Participants can obtain certificates if they are successful in the final apprenticeship examination. Counselling for immigrants is also in place, informing potential validation participants about the opportunities for and requirements of participation. If they decide to participate, personal portfolios are created with a focus on competences relevant for the individual’s chosen profession.
Measures taking the specificity of immigrants into account can also be in place at the time of assessment. In some Nordic countries, the candidate’s cultural and linguistic background is taken into consideration when planning validation tests. But this tends not to be the case in countries where validation is more summative in nature and less integrated in the guidance process. In Sweden, recent validation initiatives have aimed to make validation a central part of the initial integration activities for immigrants to shorten the time it takes for them to make the transition to the labour market. The validation process varies according to the goals and background of the individual, but encompasses a “competence mapping” phase which involves information and identification of competences, and a second stage of “competence assessment” which tests individuals on their knowledge, skills and competences against specific standards. In Belgium/Wallonia, validation of competences (Validation des Compétences; VDC) is carried out by continuous vocational training centres. VDC leads to the award of a skills certificate [Titre de Compétence]. Skills certificates can be accumulated to obtain a qualification in the adult education sector, after having passed an integrated final test [épreuve intégrée]. In this system, targeted efforts are dedicated to engaging groups which are particularly hard to reach, especially immigrants. This is done through cooperation with organisations working directly with these groups, such as regional centres dedicated to supporting and integrating immigrants. However, this system creates “A” and “B” certificate types, and has been under revision since 2014.
The assessment phase in a large set of countries is closely linked to formal education and does not provide much scope for intercultural dialogue and exchange. For example, in Germany, the Vocational Qualifications Assessment Law (Berufsqualifikationsfeststellungsgesetz; BQFG) (FRG 2012) introduced the right to match foreign qualifications to formal German qualifications. The law (ibid., para 3, “Introduction” section) also permits the validation of appropriate work experience towards acquired formal qualifications. In Germany, the main method used for validation is external exams, in which all individuals (those seeking NFIL validation and those who have taken formal education courses) sit the same exam. This is done to assure the quality of the outcomes, reduce the costs of tests and give equal status to the qualifications acquired through validation – a system which is also common in several other European countries. However, immigrants are clearly likely to face specific challenges in relation to this type of validation practice.
There are, therefore, a number of pilot initiatives and projects in place at different stages of validation (identification, documentation, assessment and recognition) in European countries. While those reviewed above are valuable initiatives, their reliance on project-based work raises questions regarding sustainability after the project life has ended, as well as issues around lack of linkage with parts of the education system (e.g. to follow up validation with further training) which may be beyond the scope of the project. In addition, many initiatives are linked to formal qualifications and they consider competences acquired through NFIL not linked to national formal qualifications more marginally.
The high road to validation for immigrants
Validation systems are portrayed to work for the inclusion of all types of immigrants. However, systems can be set up which cater particularly for those immigrants who have a potentially stronger link with the labour market: highly skilled immigrants and those whose skills match labour market demands. Validation systems can lead to the “disappearance” of the skills and competences possessed by individuals defined as non-highly skilled: while those defined as high-skilled find it easier to get their competences recognised by employers and governments, those outside that category see themselves encumbered with difficulties and pushed towards the bottom. This leads to a polarisation in the recognition of knowledge, skills and competences between the “high-skilled” and the “non-high skilled”.
EU countries do not see immigrants as a uniform category, and not all immigrants are treated equally. Henk van Houtum and Roos Pijpers (2007) note that in the EU there has been a tightening in immigrant control policy to favour those who can be of economic value in host countries. Rather than inclusion or exclusion, validation systems may selectively recognise the skills of some migrants and not those of others. Those working in shortage sectors or in particular those considered to be at the high end of the productive spectrum and key to economic competitiveness are favoured – and these will vary by country. Meanwhile, the skills and competences of those working at the middle and low added value end of the market – in those jobs which improve products or services and the difference between costs and retail price only marginally – and outside key sectors, or who do not already have an employment offer are treated unfavourably due to the lack of suitable systems for the validation of their NFIL.
This process can be most clearly illustrated with reference to immigration control policy for third-country nationals, and their right to reside and work in the host country. While regulations differ among EU countries, and immigration policies in the EU do not respond exclusively to labour market considerations, in an increasing number of European countries, the admission of third-country nationals depends on their performance in a “points system” or a similar scheme which takes into account a set of criteria to define some individuals as “high-skilled”. The European Parliament and International Organization for Migration (2009) name six countries from very diverse political economies and welfare regimes as having special schemes for high-skilled workers: the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK; others offer favourable conditions such as Germany or Belgium. Their points systems often take into account prior educational qualifications and salary – to which other criteria such as an existing link to the host country and age can be added. In Belgium, those who have completed tertiary education can obtain a work permit for at least four years if their salary is going to be higher than EUR 33,082 per year; to obtain a Green Card in Ireland, an applicant requires a job offer which has an annual salary above EUR 60,000, or above EUR 30,000 in a strategically important field such as IT, healthcare, construction or financial services (European Parliament and International Organization for Migration 2009). In the Netherlands, the highly skilled migrants scheme (which again is presented as being skills-related, but is actually largely based on future income) requires earnings above EUR 4,189 per month excluding holiday allowance for those aged over 30, and EUR 3,071 for those under 30 (Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice 2015). Minimum income requirements are also set for non-highly skilled migrants, but these do not benefit from the advantages of highly skilled migrant schemes.
Those defined as highly skilled immigrants based on the salary offered by their prospective employers are eligible for specific programmes which afford them more lenient, straightforward or faster approval procedures for entry (European Parliament and International Organization for Migration 2009). So admission is based on a set of criteria which identify competence with reference to formal education and the “market value” of the skills and competences developed through formal and non-formal/informal learning. Salary becomes a reductionist assessment criterion to make competences visible and select “high-skilled” individuals from amongst those who hold the minimum formal education credentials (often a higher education qualification) required in the host country. Skill is defined as the capacity to contribute to national economic success and generate direct revenue (create wealth) for the host country.
Some parts of validation systems thus operate – at least in some countries – under market logics through the decision-making of employers, with little intervention of public validation systems, except to sanction the decision of the private sector and provide certain entitlements to highly skilled immigrants. In the cases reviewed in this subsection, employers have a key role in deciding what the skills of the individual are and whether he/she wants to support admission into the country, including through the offer of a sufficiently high salary.
Explaining the “low road”
The lack of more inclusive general systems of validation which put immigrants at the centre (the existence of a “low road” to validation) can be explained in various ways. First, validation systems might face practical constraints. There can be economic reasons for the “devaluing” – or “decredentializing” (Lerner and Menahem 2003) – nature of validation for immigrants, because it is not possible to identify and recognise their full set of competences in the absence of sufficient expertise, time and resources. This is not to deny that the devaluation process can be made more prominent due to procedural and managerial biases towards certain outcomes (Guo 2010).
Second, immigrants are likely to be negatively affected by the situated character of skills and competences. Skills, competences and qualifications suffer a “break in journey” in the process of migration: not all skills and competences which can be used in the home country will be equally useful in the host country – the example of a labour lawyer provides clear evidence of that – and those which cannot be used tend to be excluded from validation in the host country. Ann-Zofie Duvander (2001) finds that the pay gap between immigrants and native-born Swedish employees is partly, although not fully, explained by immigrants’ lack of “country-specific skills”. This recognises that learning and skills are socially situated, and that “migrants have to acquire place-specific knowledge if they are to valorise fully other forms of knowledge” (Williams 2007, p. 4).
But validation also can be used as a tool for exclusion: the artificial “construction” of differences in competences between home and host country, over and above the above-mentioned “break in journey” or discontinuity, can be employed as a mechanism to protect host-country national workers against competition from immigrants (Williams 2007). The use of limits in the validation of immigrants’ knowledge, skills and competences may provide a more palatable medium for discrimination than other types of labour market discrimination. Validation thus can be used to conceal intolerance for diversity (Duvander 2001). It can also act as a “directive” device for immigrants, devaluing the recognition of their competences so that they do not seek jobs at their real competence levels, as these are likely to be given to nationals, and focus on the jobs that nationals do not want. There is some evidence that labour market discrimination also occurs when immigrants acquire qualifications in their host country (Bonikowska et al. 2011). Inclusive validation, under this interpretation, would raise expectations for immigrants, only to then subject them to facing discrimination in the labour market.