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Asian insights: the ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework - a promising tool for benchmarking existing and new qualifications in the ASEAN region

Marlon Miña, 2023

The development of the ASEAN Qualifications Framework

The initiative to create the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Qualifications Reference Framework (AQRF) started in 2007 with the agreement of the ten ASEAN member countries: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. In 2010, the AQRF was established with much of the development work financed by the ASEAN, Australian and New Zealand free trade area organization. In 2014, the AQRF was endorsed by the economic and education ministers of ASEAN and in 2015, it was agreed by the ASEAN labour ministers.

The impetus to develop the ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework was to support intra-regional trade by facilitating labour market mobility for workers and to help fill the skills demands of employers across the region in a way which promotes high quality education and training and standardization across occupations. In Southeast Asia, the demand for a skilled workforce has been growing (the total population in the region in 2022 was 663,850,000 million people). Regional demand for aligning the skills and educational content of qualifications became a key consideration to promote economic integration amongst ASEAN member states and the competitiveness of the region as a whole.

The BILT Asia-Pacific survey confirmed this. 120 TVET stakeholders from 37 countries were asked to rate the most important factors prompting the need for TVET reform. The highest rankings were given to changes in labour market skills needs. For example, over 50% of respondents indicated rapid innovation in the labour market resulting in modernization of sectors or occupations.

The study also highlighted the significance of worker mobility across the region (in 2020 more than 40% of global migrant workers were born in Asia) as well as economic dependency of some Asian countries on remittances. Enabling workers to migrate to broader the regional skilled workforce was a clear rationale for the AQRF.

The rationale for Regional Qualifications Frameworks

Ensuring that qualifications are recognized across a nation and/or across international borders often underpins the development of National and cross-national Qualifications Frameworks (NQFs). NQFs provide an instrument to classify and structure certified education and training qualifications according to agreed levels (usually levels 1-8 to align with the eight levels of the UNESCO International Classification of Education). The rationale for developing an NQF are multiple, they are beneficial to policy-makers, workers, employers, education and training providers, and learners alike. They can serve to:

  • Enable people to migrate across borders and jurisdictions through mutual recognition (by governments and employers) of qualifications mapped to the framework wherever and howsoever gained.
  • Ensure common competence standards within an occupation are upheld and that they are being applied everywhere.
  • Create opportunities to define standardized curricula, assessment methods and certification procedures for education and training programmes.
  • Provide policy-makers with agreed learning outcomes and standards to measure education and training quality.
  • Enable learners to understand what qualifications are recognized and accredited by education systems and employers elsewhere to support educational and labour market mobility and career planning.

Qualifications frameworks provide a mechanism around which education, training and labour market stakeholders can discuss and agree upon the learning inputs and outputs which should constitute a certified and recognized qualification. Such a discussion can be used to solve skills mismatches and to provide learners and employers with credible qualifications which have a labour market value. They also serve as a way to map qualifications to each framework ‘level’, enabling a coherent way for learners to design their own learning pathway through the different levels. According to the ILO (2007), qualifications frameworks provide a basis for improving the quality, accessibility, linkages, and public or labour market recognition of qualifications within a country and internationally.

The AQRF is one of two regional qualifications frameworks in Asia, and while the regional rationale is primarily labour market driven, it also supports closer cooperation in education and lifelong learning, higher education mobility, and the recognition of qualifications across ASEAN countries (ASEAN, 2021). The other regional NQF is the Pacific Qualifications Framework – established for different reasons than the AQRF. The Pacific Qualifications Framework is agreed upon across 15 islands to improve the accreditation and recognition of qualifications (UNESCO et al, 2019).

The objectives of the AQRF

The education sector in the AQRF is defined to incorporate informal, non-formal, and formal learning based on an agreed understanding between ASEAN member states. By design, it does not impinge on NQFs. ASEAN members are invited to participate in AQRF voluntarily and implement it by referencing their respective NQF levels which is presented in a national referencing report.

The objectives of the AQRF are sixfold, to:

  1. support the recognition of qualifications across the ASEAN members
  2. develop a framework which supports individual lifelong learning pathways
  3. develop approaches to validate all learning: including informal and non-formal
  4. promote learner and workers mobility
  5. lead to better cross-national understanding and recognition of national qualifications
  6. promote quality of education and training systems

The AQRF has 8 levels, each comprising a set of overarching descriptors which define the knowledge, skills, and competencies expected of graduates at different stages of their education pathways. These descriptors are then used to map the qualifications of each member state onto the AQRF, allowing for comparisons and recognition of qualifications across the region. The mapping process is presented below. It shows how NQFs may comprise more or fewer levels but are mapped to the AQRF.

The AQRF is designed to be flexible and adaptable to accommodate the diverse education systems and qualifications of ASEAN members and their respective national priorities.

The AQRF is supported by the work of the ASEAN Quality Assurance Network (AQAN), which provides a forum for discussion across the members to promote peer learning; a better understanding of national qualifications systems (as a means to promote deeper understanding and trust) and to identify best practices in quality assurance. This is shown in the figure below.

Benefits of the AQRF to learners and the private sector

The AQRF is built on the principle of transparency so it can be easily used by employers and educational institutions to validate skills and qualifications. The referencing process of matching national qualifications to the AQRF involved structural and technical comparisons of learning inputs and expected learning outcomes (which is documented in the national referencing report). The AQRF process and model was influenced by the Australian, New Zealand and European Qualification Framework (EQF) models. It provides the basis for a range of mechanisms including:

  • Credit transfer for learners to move between ASEAN education and training systems
  • Integration and recognition of non-formal and informal learning
  • Cross-recognition by employers of qualifications and the ability to compare candidates from different countries

The AQRF also supports wider goals such as facilitating the mobility of employers by creating a common understanding of qualifications across ASEAN member states borders. Differing qualification standards and employment regulations can be a hurdle when it comes to intra-regional workforce movement.  As larger talent pools emerge for recruitment, the private sector is incentivized to invest and expand. The development of a skilled and mobile workforce promotes a competitive and dynamic environment for both employers and workers alike and helps to deepen economic integration among ASEAN member states.

AQRF next steps: opportunities and challenges

The AQRF has created opportunities to improve education and labour market mobility, and provides a mechanism for private sector involvement in TVET systems. The framework has spurred other initiatives including ASEAN agreements on labour market mobility and mutual recognition arrangements. But challenges also remain. One of the most significant is engaging sufficient private sector involvement in the further development of the AQRF.

Opportunity: ASEAN agreements in labour market mobility and mutual recognition

The signing of the ASEAN Agreement on the Movement of Natural Persons in November 2012 and the ASEAN Mutual Recognition Arrangements (MRA) remove barriers to the movement of people. The two accords facilitate mobility through the recognition of qualifications, experience obtained, or licenses/certifications granted by the relevant authorities in an ASEAN member state for mutual recognition by other member states. ASEAN has concluded MRAs in seven professional occupations and qualifications signed by the ASEAN Economic Ministers: (1) engineering, (2) nursing (3) architecture (4) quantity surveying, (5) medical practitioners, (6) dental practitioners, and (7) accountancy services. Qualifications across these professions are mutually recognized across ASEAN members enabling mobility. Challenges remain such as differing sector standards and regulations, local and regional bureaucracy, language and communication barriers, lack of information and awareness, and the participation of the private sector, among others.

Challenge: Engaging the private sector in the AQRF and MRA

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) cites the limited involvement of the private sector as a challenge for creating portable qualifications and meeting demand for skilled professionals (ADB, 2016). In ASEAN, not all employers and professionals are fully involved in Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs) and visa-facilitation programmes. This may be due to a lack of awareness. The creation of the ASEAN Business Club (ABC), the ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ABAC), the ASEAN TVET Council and the ASEAN Future Workforce Council (AFWC) are viewed as ways to improve awareness and to support implementation and development of the AQRF.

In principle, the private sector can help to promote the AQRF by recognizing qualifications mapped onto the AQRF, thereby supporting a common understanding of qualifications across ASEAN member states. Employers can also work with education and training providers to ensure their programmes are aligned with AQRF descriptors and quality assurance principles. This can help ensure that graduates have the knowledge, skills, and competencies expected of them. 

Lastly, the private sector can participate in developing and implementing qualifications to ensure they meet the needs of employers and the labour market.

However, at the time of writing (September 2023), only Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand have made significant strides in benchmarking their respective National Qualifications Framework (NQF) to the AQRF and are currently progressing in their post-referencing activities at the national level. Meanwhile, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam are in different stages of referencing their NQF to the AQRF, aiming to submit their respective partial referencing reports by the end of 2023.

Another challenge for the private sector is whether or not they are willing to adopt the AQRF as their reference for grading the salaries and benefits for their employees. This should follow from the AQRF providing a reference point for employers across all ASEAN countries to define common standards for the knowledge, skills and values they expect from persons attaining these qualifications. What should follow is that the salary grades and benefits should be commensurate to these benchmarked and recognized qualifications.


ASEAN’s geographical connectivity, young population, and unique and diverse culture are important assets to leverage in creating a sociocultural community (ASEAN, n.d.). The AQRF reflects individual country culture as well as promoting a regional identity contributing to and strengthening cultural industries and creative economies (Andaya, n.d.). The connectivity opens up opportunities for easier education/learning collaboration initiatives and facilitates student exchanges. Infrastructure and business investments in the region make these learning and labour market exchange initiatives more important (Rao et al. 2023, Deloitte 2020) as will the expected economic expansion in the region, which is predicted to grow by 5.2% on average (OECD, 2022). This will be especially significant in emerging industries connected to new skills demands (such as digital skills) and new occupational demands tied to the green economy. The need to mutually recognize skills and qualifications within the region will play a bigger role.

For the long-term, the ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework will support the recognition of qualifications in the ASEAN region, creating a mechanism for the recognition of prior learning and the transferability of qualifications, especially in a dynamic ecosystem where skills and competencies are influenced by new technologies. With the existing accords on Movement of Natural Persons and the expanding scope and coverage of the Mutual Recognition Agreements, ASEAN is well positioned to take advantage of the economic trends in the region.

National government education/training agencies and enterprises from all ASEAN member states can form a pool of champions to support the AQRF and linked initiatives. The AQRF and its referencing process helps ASEAN member states to better understand and appreciate each other’s education, training and qualifications systems. The more member states reference their own National Qualifications Frameworks to the AQRF, the more meaningful the AQRF will be. Enterprises can help promote the AQRF by recognizing and valuing qualifications, supporting the mobility of learners and employees, working with education and training providers, and participating in the development of quality assurance mechanisms. By doing so, the private sector can help to promote regional integration and cooperation in education and support the development of a skilled and mobile workforce in the ASEAN region.

The purpose of the Atlas is to shed light on the trends experienced across TVET systems in Africa, Asia and the Pacific and Europe while pinpointing examples of how some of the challenges discussed above are addressed.


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