Part I: Technical aspects of designing and redesigning programmes/awards for inclusion in the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ)



This first part of the university sector Framework Implementation Network (FIN) report addresses some of the technical aspects that are associated with designing new or redesigning existing [1] programmes for inclusion in the National Framework of Qualifications (referred to as ‘the Framework’ or the ‘NFQ’ in the remainder of this document), including level indicators, major and non-major award-types, award-type descriptors, and credit allocation. It addresses learning outcomes mainly in terms of how they, as a construct, contribute to the formation of a programme, and the importance of designing appropriate teaching, learning and assessment methods (these topics are picked up in greater detail in Parts 2 and 3 of this report). The essential linkage of the Framework with quality assurance activities is emphasised. The relationship of the Irish Framework with the Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area, more commonly referred to as the 'Bologna' Framework, and the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) is also examined. Web links to key references and language, and further sources of information, are included at the end of each topic.


Drawing on the experience of academics and administrators, and those supporting teaching and learning across higher education institutions, this opening part of the report aims to: provide some guidance for addressing the challenges presented by the Framework as they relate to the design or redesign of programmes; identify the common characteristics of programmes that are recognised through the Framework; compile, for ease of reference, the technical information required when designing or redesigning programmes to be included in the Framework; and, consider how the Framework can be used sensibly as a benchmarking tool that aids consistency and the recognition of qualifications. It also recounts, and attempts to respond to, some of the questions that have been posed by higher education practitioners in the course of designing and adapting programmes for inclusion in the NFQ.

Programmes are designed and updated in line with local, national and international developments and the existence of the Framework does not make this process any less dynamic. An ongoing dialogue will be required within and across higher education institutions regarding the most effective means of implementing the Framework in this environment. The university sector Framework Implementation Network’s working group on the technical aspects of designing programmes for inclusion in the Framework, hopes that this opening part of the report will contribute to the important discussions to be had in this regard in the coming months and years amongst and between academics and administrators.

A note on language

This first section of the report uses the words ‘programme’ and ‘award’ throughout. In the majority of cases a programme delivered by a university, or by a linked college in which it makes awards, is also the award that the learner receives on its successful completion, e.g., a learner who undertakes a BSc (Hons) Government programme is also awarded a BSc (Hons) Government by the university, having successfully completed the programme. In this regard, the words ‘programme’ and ‘award’ are used in this section interchangeably.


Award-type Descriptors:
The 16 major awards on the Framework are all award-types. Knowledge, skill and competence and associated sub-strand outcomes have been developed for each of these and are called award-type descriptors. Due to the level of variation within, and the range of non-major awards, less detailed award-type descriptors are available for the classes of non-major award (minor, supplemental and special purpose). Award-type descriptors are generic, in that they do not refer to a particular field of learning.

Bologna Framework:
A European higher education meta-framework with three cycles; Bachelor, Masters and Doctoral, and associated learning outcome indicators.

Bologna Process:
The process that commenced with the Bologna Declaration in 1999 to establish a European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

Credit, and in some cases credit ranges, are associated with award-types in the Framework and are largely compatible in Irish higher education with European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) credit. The general purpose of credit is to recognise learning achievements which have value in themselves and which may be used to gain an award.

European Qualifications Framework (EQF):
A European lifelong learning meta-framework with 8 levels and associated learning outcome indicators.

The National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) has 10 levels that capture learning from the very initial stages (i.e., literacy and communication skills) to the most advanced (i.e. Doctoral level).

Level indicators:
Each level on the Framework has a specified level indicator. Level indicators are broad descriptions of learning outcomes, which are articulated in terms of knowledge, skill and competence. The Framework level indicators are generic in that they do not relate to a particular field of learning.

Learning outcomes:
Learning outcomes are represented in the Framework through statements of knowledge, skill and competence. These are associated with each level and with the awards included in each level of the Framework.

Major awards:
Major Awards are the collective term for the 16 awards with a large volume of outcomes that are featured in the Framework.

An overarching (European) qualifications framework that enables the comparison of national qualifications frameworks with each other.

A module is a discrete piece of learning within a programme that has associated learning outcomes, assessment and credit. It is also known as a ‘subject’ or a ‘unit’.

Module Outcomes:
Each module has learning outcomes associated with it. These outcomes collectively contribute to the achievement of the associated programme learning outcomes.

Non-Major awards:
Non-major awards are the collective term for awards in the Framework with a smaller volume and more narrow outcomes than major awards. There are three classes of non-major award: minor, special purpose and supplemental.

Programme Outcomes:
A series of statements articulated in terms of the learning outcomes of knowledge, skill and competence that are associated with a programme as a whole.

The knowledge, skill and competence learning outcomes associated with each level of the Framework have associated sub-strands which elaborate types of knowledge, skill and competence learning outcomes. For example, at each level there are knowledge learning outcomes indicated; the type of knowledge outcome anticipated at each level is broken down into knowledge breadth, and knowledge kind. These are called sub-strands.

Volume refers to the amount of knowledge, skill and competence at a particular level or levels: the larger the amount of knowledge, skill and competence the greater the associated volume. The concept of volume is key to the development of a system of credit accumulation and transfer. Not all award-types at a level on the Framework have the same volume.

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