Recognition of qualifications from prior learning and work experience in Estonia


From November 2002 until February 2003 a European project was launched to research the validation of prior learning. Next to UK, France, Italy and Norway also Estonia took part. The Estonian research was lead by the University of Tartu in collaboration with the Estonian Ministry of Education. Data was collected about all levels of education, from primary to adult education, as well as about methods of learning (formal, non-formal, informational). The results of the research were published May 14th-17th 2003 at the European Union Centre Network (EUCN) conference in Brno.
In Estonia this research was performed from December 2002 until February 2003. The project was funded by the European Union committee TRANSFINE (Transfer between Formal, Informal and Non-formal Education) and the Estonian Ministry for Education and Science. Presently the second phase of the research is in process.


The abovementioned research project stated as its overall result that in Estonia prior learning and work experience is accredited in all areas. Never-the-less it is still rather unorganized as there is no central state regulation.

Basic Education

Some secondary schools readily accredit learning outside of their curriculum. There are schools that grant a “very good” and exemption from physical education classes if a student is already active as an athlete outside of school. On the other hand there are schools that make no such exceptions. There is a case where a student who got only a “satisfactory” in physical education class while he had been elected Estonia’s best young athlete.
Language biased and other specially oriented secondary schools are more tolerant and validating for their pupils’ after school activities: language schools, children’s’ art or music schools, sport training etc. Studies in secondary schools abroad also are valued and credited.
Adult Gymnasiums validate the previously learnt. In the gymnasium for adults one can take one subject only if that is needed. In Estonia both children and grown-ups can complete all their studies at home and do exams externally – this alternative is generally accepted but seldom used.

Vocational Education

The main issues in vocational education is the validation of vocational education in higher education and the validation of work experience as practicum for higher education. This was partly a practice already in the Soviet era. When for example a young person graduated from pedagogical seminar (vocational education) and continued to study in the university then she did not have to pass the specific subjects again – credits were transferred. But not all universities validate vocational education. The Estonian Qualification Authority (trademark – Kutsekoda) is a place where one can formulate all previous studies and receive a vocational qualification certificate, which also universities accredit. This is one solution for recognition of one’s prior learning.

Higher Education

Here, too situations differ from place to place. Sometimes students from one university changing to other universities find themselves treated differently – some accredit all prior learning, other not. There are universities that require only a high school graduation certificate for the entrance exam, and others that ask for a portfolio, test work and take account of all prior studies. For instance participation in Youth Marine Club is an advantage when applying for the Higher Marine School; when applying for math biased secondary school is will be favourable to have good results in mathematics competitions for pupils (Olympiad) and participation in science courses at Tartu University.
When entering the Tartu University as correspondence study a work experience in the field will be accredited. Work experience is often counted as completed work practice in this case. The Faculty of Languages gives extra credit when the applicant has previously studied in language schools or worked for example as a tour guide.

Adult Education

The extent to which universities accredit prior learning in adult and non-formal education has been researched by Eda Mikk, the head of Tartu Education Centre of Open Estonia Association. The results of this research show that credits are given mainly for specific courses in the non-formal education delivered by professors of the university. For example the Faculty of Educational Sciences in Tallinn University had validated studies in non-formal courses. The problem lies often in the fact that non-formal education centres are learner-centred and base the level of education on the actual level of the learner while universities are mainly curriculum-centred and usually considering the level of the learners is for them “lowering the education standards”.
Employers also have different points of view on non-formal education. Non-formal and informational education has proven to be an advantage to the employee in regard to approval testing and qualification level raising. Profession-specific non-formal learning is especially highly valued. But there are employers that also support their workers’ choir singing as musical self-development and favour it. But the general attitude in Estonia is that the worker should be first of all “loyal”; the level of education, experience, enthusiasm and innovative thinking etc only have secondary importance.


Research at Tartu University stressed out the following as most typical problems:
- Estonian people do not value their non-formal education themselves and therefore do not ask for accreditation from their university or their employer.
- Classical learning methods are highly valued and alternatives regarded with suspicion. It is often asked how the quality of a diploma can be guaranteed if all kinds of learning is accredited, how to prove that one has really learned something from work experience etc.
- Providers of formal education try to compete with centres of non-formal education. Universities aspire to include as much additional courses and trainings as possible and generally do not acknowledge non-formal methods.
- The quality of education varies from one institution to another – this makes evaluation and comparing of diplomas and certificates difficult. An advantage here is the smallness of Estonia: the quality of education in various centres and universities is more or less a common knowledge spread by people and therefore agreements can be made.
- Lack of money is also a problem here as evaluation and accrediting of prior learning often requires ordering an expertise, professional conversations, exams etc and all that costs.
A solution could be the creation of professional standards. In Estonia these began to be developed in 1997 and the process is still in development. A professional certificate consists of the graduation diploma of a standard level education institution, the fulfilment of vocational examination as well as success in practical work. If one needs his or her non-formal and informational studies to be acknowledged applying for a professional certificate is inevitable. The holder of a professional certificate has the right to use a professional title and work both in Estonia and abroad.

Evaluating Educational Centres

It is easier to ask for validation for one’s non-formal learning when the non-formal education centre has been accredited and evaluated. The first evaluation of educational centres of Estonian Non-Formal Adult Education Association (EVHL) was made in 2002. A new and more extensive one began in May 2006 with 45 educational centres taking part in it. The project is supported by the European Social Fund (ESF). The pilot evaluation involving four educational centres has been completed by now, while the remaining centres continue self-evaluation. The adequacy of self-evaluation is then evaluated by outside experts. In September the outside evaluation was launched. An expert is usually the creator of an evaluation model, a director or a teacher of a non-formal education centre or another person actively participating in the field. Conclusions to these evaluations will be published in December.
The model for evaluation of non-formal education centres was developed by long-term members of the Estonian Non-formal Education Association, many of whom have a degree in educational sciences: Ivo Eesmaa, Reet Valgmaa, Piret Tamme, Merle Lõhmus, Tiina Jääger, Ene Lukka-Jegikjan, Eha Korkus, Maire Breede, Heli Kaldas, Eda Mikk.
Criteria for evaluation include: personal development of the learner, satisfaction of the employer of the learner, satisfaction of teachers and personnel, satisfaction of the funder, satisfaction of the owner of the education centre, of the local government and the local community at large.
Non-formal education centres can also be evaluated through viewing the popularity of the courses. Cultural subjects such as arts, crafts, cultural history etc and the so called new skills: entrepreneurship, languages, computer and communication skills are at the moment equally popular amongst the learners.
Professional training covered 16 per cent of all non-formal learning in 2005 which is a high level in the field of non-formal education. The fact that the employer (or the employee himself) agree to pay for the courses can be a proof about the good quality of the education.