A LOT of hype has gone with the pronouncement of ‘useless’ degrees, with several respondents ferociously crying foul, arguing there are no such degrees as useless degrees. 

In a previous article in The Patriot, I went to town explaining the importance of reconfiguring our curriculum to align it with the imperatives and exigencies of the moment. 

Before, I had taken quite some space to demonstrate the importance of the just established Zimbabwe National Qualifications Framework (ZNQF). 

Those who have read my unpacking of the latter and failed to put the issue of useless degrees in the ZNQF context did not understand the framework’s full import; and for that reason, I will take my time here to marry the two by discussing their critical interface, namely; the ‘programme-qualifications mix’ and, hopefully, put the debate on useless degrees to rest.

The evolution of NQF  

To begin with, the concept of the national qualification framework evolved a long time ago and, like any other intervention, it was developed to respond to emerging needs. 

The origin of qualification structures can be traced back to organised education in antique civilisations such as Greece, Sparta, Rome and China. 

As no specialised career structure existed in these cultures, organised education focused on broad issues of international citizenship and not on vocational preparedness, which was achieved mainly through informal apprenticeships. 

As civilisations developed, the role of social class and caste received more emphasis, and people who displayed certain competences were grouped together. 

The advantage of having participated in and benefitted from education gradually became more visible as civilisations developed. 

In this respect, the Chinese civilisation was the most organised, with a series of levels attached to examinations, which in turn granted the right of access to public office. 

During the Middle Ages, education had a particularly religious nature, while the late medieval centuries were categorised by a new approach to education alongside the clergy and feudal knighthood. 

New economic objectives, as a result of the Crusades and the development of banking, importing and shipping across Europe and the West, gave rise to the development of cities and a new form of education aimed at professional life. 

Education became available to the middle classes while the merchant and craft guild system developed.

The first institutions of formal higher education were established at this time in the Islamic universities of Al-Azhar in Cairo and Sankore in Timbuktu. 

By the 11th Century, universities were developing in Europe, largely in reaction to the previous narrow religious doctrine. 

The establishment of the University of Bologna marked the beginning of the European university tradition. 

This was also the time when the term ‘qualification’ acquired a more definite meaning, although it retained its emphasis on social class structures. 

The 19th Century brought with it a wave of liberalism and consciousness of equal rights and opportunities, accompanied by increased specialisation and bureaucratisation. 

The increased need for skilled employees eventually resulted in an emphasis on credentials which persist to the present day. 

During the 20th Century, the emphasis shifted to human capital theory and technological development, eventually leading to concerns whether the education system was able to meet the demands of the labour market. 

At the time, it was argued the strong divisions were creating barriers to learning and that there was a need to do away with the sharp distinction between academic and vocational systems. 

During the late 1980s, and strongly influenced by the thinking on integration, but also by a focus on vocational training through a competency approach, the notion of a NQFs emerged in the UK. Its roots lay in the competence approach to vocational education which was broadened by Jessup, as well as the Scottish Action Plan which led to the modularisation of vocational education and training in Scotland. 

The idea developed that all qualifications could be expressed in terms of outcomes without prescribing learning pathways or programmes. 

Within this politically charged melting pot of factors and a renewed emphasis on the importance of lifelong learning, the first NQFs were established in Australia, England, Scotland, New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa between 1989 and 1995. France, as a country with a different, notably non-Anglo Saxon tradition, was also a member of this group of first-generation NQFs. 

In the case of France, the NQF drew on a hierarchy of qualifications that found official expression at the end of the 1960s in a nomenclature which tried to rationalise the number of students leaving the education and training system to correspond with the needs of the labour market. 

Across the first-generation countries, NQFs were conceptualised as hierarchical classifications of levels of formal learning programmes and their associated qualifications and certificates. Integral features of NQFs included new quality assurance and standards-setting regimes based on learning outcomes and, importantly, for this study, level descriptors which are used to determine the level at which a qualification should be pegged.

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