Section C: The NFQ and European Qualifications Frameworks: Implications for Programme Design


It is important to understand that the Irish Framework is operating in a wider context, in both European and international terms. There are now two meta-frameworks in operation at a European level: the Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area, more commonly referred to as the ‘Bologna Framework’ and the European Qualifications Framework (EQF). The first is used to compare higher education qualifications in national frameworks of qualifications to the Bologna Framework cycles and the second is a ‘lifelong learning’ framework to which the levels of national qualifications frameworks are referenced. Both Frameworks are based on learning outcomes, and are consistent with the understandings and concepts underpinning the Irish NFQ.

The Bologna Framework emerged as part of the Bologna Process and is currently the better known of the two Frameworks in the higher education environment in Ireland. It is based on three cycle descriptors known as the ‘Dublin descriptors’. Essentially these indicate the learning outcomes associated with first cycle (Bachelors Degree), second cycle (Masters Degree) and third cycle (Doctoral Degree) qualifications.

In contrast, and in order to fulfil its objective of recognising learning throughout one’s life, the EQF is an eight level Framework which applies to all types of education and training qualifications, from school education to academic, professional and vocational. Each level is expressed in terms of learning outcomes. When each country in Europe has developed its national qualifications framework it will verify and reference it against the cycles/levels of the Bologna and EQF frameworks respectively. This process will establish how national qualifications/levels relate to these overarching Frameworks and thus to other national frameworks in Europe.

Ireland verified the compatibility of its National Framework of Qualifications with the Bologna Framework in 2006 and completed the referencing of its levels against those of the EQF in June 2009. Links to the reports on both of these processes are included at the end of this section. How Framework qualifications line up against the Bologna Framework cycles, and the EQF levels, is illustrated below. It is important to note that the comparability between the higher levels of the EQF (levels 6, 7 and 8) and the three cycles of the Bologna Framework has been confirmed at a European level:

Comparison of NFQ with Bologna Cycles / EQF Levels

EQF LevelsBologna FrameworkIrish NFQ LevelsIrish Major Award-Types
1 1Level 1 Certificate
2Level 2 Certificate
2 3Level 3 Certificate, Junior Certificate
3 4Level 4 Certificate, Leaving Certificate
4 5Level 5 Certificate, Leaving Certificate
5Short Cycle within First Cycle6Advanced Certificate*, Higher Certificate
6First Cycle7Ordinary Bachelor Degree
8Honours Bachelor Degree, Higher Diploma
7Second Cycle9

Masters Degree, Postgraduate Diploma

8Third Cycle10Doctoral Degree, Higher Doctorate**

*The Advanced Certificate is a further education and training award and has not been verified against the Bologna Framework.

** The Higher Doctorate award is not based on a provider’s programme and, as such, is not subject to validation but is assessed by the awarding body for each individual learner. Normally, the learner already holds a first doctorate or equivalent for some period of time prior to becoming a candidate for the higher doctorate. As a result, further references to this award-type have not been made in this section of the report.


A number of European initiatives have evolved which encourage cooperation amongst higher education colleagues across Europe on particular higher education topics and disciplines. The thematic networks that have developed as part of the Tuning project and in support of the Bologna Process are one such development. The EQF is also supporting academic and sectoral collaboration across Europe. These are valuable processes which support the drive towards a European Higher Education Area, the relevance of the European meta-frameworks, and the introduction and implementation of national qualifications frameworks.

Ireland has played a central role in the development of both the Bologna Framework and its cycle descriptors (the ‘Dublin descriptors’) and the level outcomes upon which the EQF is designed. As a result, there is a high degree of comparability between the concepts of knowledge, skill and competence that underpin the Irish and European frameworks, as evidenced in the verification and referencing reports that elaborate on these relationships. It is a European and national expectation, however, that national qualifications frameworks, which articulate in more depth the knowledge, skill and competence outcomes associated with a given qualification and with the framework level at which it is included, will act as the primary reference point for the design of programmes.

As the compatibility of the NFQ with the Bologna Framework, and referencing to the EQF has been completed, the use of the NFQ major award-type descriptors and/or level indicators when designing a programme ensures its compatibility with the European meta-frameworks; contributes to the establishment of a national education and training system that promotes lifelong learning; accommodates transparent access, transfer and progression arrangements for the learner; and supports learner mobility.


Programme designer refers to …

National Framework of Qualifications award-type descriptors and/or level indicators

Award is included in the National Framework of Qualifications

Awards included in the National Framework of Qualifications are automatically referenced to the Bologna Framework Cycle descriptors and to the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) levels



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