The 5th VPL Biennale - People, Validation and Power: Democracy in Action?


It is not often you get to participate in an event that is described by a world leader in education as ‘a public good’, or where both cutting-edge and novice practitioners, researchers and policy makers gave you the inside track on what is ‘hot’ in RPL in almost ninety sessions over two days.

The 5th VPL Biennale ‘People, validation and power: democracy in action?’ was co-hosted by Ireland, the US and Canada, in Kilkenny, Ireland from 6-8 May 2024. More than 370 delegates from 31 countries over 5 continents considered recognition and validation (RPL), the relationship with democracy, inclusion, and what it means for us as individuals, skills and for mobility. With a warm welcome in St Canice's Cathedral, thanks to Music Generation, Eileen Curtis CEO, Kilkenny Carlow ETB, David Denieffe, Vice President Academic Affairs, South East Technological University, and Colleen Seymour, Elder of the Secwepmc Nation, and alumni who taught us about the 'right to brag', together we opened our hearts to new learning.

Professor Ted Fleming’s keynote address reflected on democracy, the personal importance of recognition for us as individuals, it’s role in our personal and societal emancipation and ultimately asked that recognition be ‘loaded with generosity’ so that our focus would be on recognising impetus- learning- for now, for futures, for selves, for families.

Over the course of two days, three plenary panels triggered inevitably rich discussion at round tables. The first globally oriented panel, moderated by Dr Borhene Chakroun, UNESCO, responded, firstly acknowledging recognition as a human right, established in the Marakesh Framework for Action, consolidated in five regional recognition conventions and now in the Global Recognition Convention, and in important initiatives providing for the recognition of the qualifications of refugees, such as the UQPR and EQPR. Dr Julie Reddy, University of Johannesburg, asked whether the purposes of our arrangements are to bring people in, or keep them out while challenging us to curate responses that value recognition practices to lead and inspire positive change. Diego Piazza Almudi, from Conocer, Mexico, working as part of the Pacific Alliance shared exemplars of working across labour market and governmental actors to improve personal and sectoral competitiveness, enhancing inclusion, including with indigenous people and finding new ways of setting standards. Pauline Boivin of the Lifelong Learning Platform elaborated on the potential for greater inclusion with opportunities for increased access through guidance services, and shorter qualifications, care with what is really necessary, transversal skills and attention to the invisible barriers to participation. Dr Jae Joong Kang from Seoul National University opened the door to personalised learning and opportunities for individuals to log and accumulate learning outcomes in personal Credit Bank accounts through for example engagement in Learning City initiatives. The panel discussion concluded that it was important for us not to lose sight of how ‘to know and to do, to live together and to be’, to remain positive about the potential of open recognition, to focus on inclusive life wide and lifelong learning opportunities, and to acknowledge that we cannot have democracy without sustainable development.

On May 8th, plenary panels focused on policy- what we have learned and what our community of practice needs to focus on moving forward, informed by global, regional and national perspectives.

The first panel, Connecting Continents, included Dr Ernesto Villalba Garcia (CEDEFOP), Brikena Xhomaqi (Lifelong Learning Platform), Dr Raul Valdes Cotera (UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning), and Christine Hoffman (International Labour Organisation). Highlights of the conversation included acknowledgement of what is now becoming shared global policy ground in relation to lifelong learning and access to decent work, including for migrants, refugees and people in refugee like situations. The right to validation, or RPL, in the context of lifelong learning, that civil society, employers and a diversity of stakeholders including learners and alumni, are part of this work including setting standards and agreeing reference points, and some successful models including ‘transitions to formality’ were referenced. Progress in implementing RPL across Europe is celebrated in CEDEFOP’s recently published Country Inventories.

The panel was given context with specific Case Studies presented by Katie Jones, UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning, Susan Forseille, Thompson Rivers University, and Anna Kahlson, Swedish National Agency of Higher VET. Responses from the floor included memorable reflections, for example, that ‘funding is the alpha and omega’ and the challenge of whether our systems or our people are at the centre of what we do.

The second plenary discussion drew us back full circle with Aline Juerges (European Commission), Orla Lynch (Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science), Dr Borhene Chakroun (UNESCO) and Dr Rhianna Rogers (US Department of the Treasury) considering our opportunities facing forward with all the learning gleaned from research and recent publications. Validation is noted as being both system deep and system wide requiring a ‘whole of government approach’ to really support both the overarching social policy of a region or country and the associated skills policy.

At European level, the Sustainable Development Goal, the right to a quality and inclusive education, and the target that by 2030 that 60% of adults would be engaged in training annually puts the individual in the driving seat of learning choices. The availability of Individual Learning Accounts is intended to support increased engagement in active learning and can support access to guidance and validation in the context of our overarching need for accelerating skills development not just personally but for sustainable and competitive communities.

Nationally, VPL is a core element across the National Framework of Qualifications for all sectors, formal, informal, VET and higher education- individuals today are learning everywhere. Our systems are learning to scaffold this independent learning so that individuals can play to their strengths and realise full potential. A necessary transformation lies in how we see ourselves- as learning, as part of something.

The availability of smaller volume programmes and qualifications is an important device to stimulate inclusion and encourage consideration of incremental participation for some people. Portable and stackable credentials matter.

Finally, we were encouraged to think globally, to see the complementarity of formal systems with the potential for disruptive elements to be bridged by VPL and new technologies. Closer collaboration across communities with diverse stakeholders will help bring validation closer to sources of achievement, where recognition makes most sense.

Closing out the conference, Professor Alan Mandell (SUNY Empire State University), Professor Irene Sheridan (Munster Technological University) and Gina Ebner (European Association for the Education of Adults) reflected using diverse lens on the breadth of discussions throughout the Biennale.

Alan captured a sense of wonder in relation to the dynamic of the global, the minutely local and democracy, holding and caring for individuals, yet working with inflexible rubrics and frameworks of systems, the tensions of inclusivity and barriers. Alan asked what a responsive scalable system and support set might look like, that resisted measuring everything for the purposes of control, but that was straightforward about what could be provided?

Irene reminded us of Ted’s opening- that in moments of recognition and learning, that democracy and emancipation happen, and that both are whole-of-life concepts. The process of recognition is important, context-rich, embedded in structures and systems that aim to be supportive. We hope for a proportionate level of quality assurance, of formality to inspire trust in the process for the individuals, for institutions, for society, families, careers, more learning, advancing skills, supporting transitions, including in practice domains. Speaking to practice in VPL, illustrating with MARTe’s case study linking learning outcomes to skills needs, and other initiatives where people who look for recognition drive system change- ‘Tell them all they can come, and see what the system does to answer!’

Gina’s closing reflection focused on how validation could look forward to a different kind of system other than one that might have failed an individual previously. She invited reflection on how a validation service might be framed to invite that future orientation, the potential perspective, rather than a retrospective.

The presentations from the extraordinary range of concurrent sessions, lightning talks and round tables are available on the 5th VPL Biennale website, and also recordings as they become available.

The Co-Chairs, Dr Nan Travers ( SUNY, Empire State University), Susan Forseille ( Thompson Rivers University) and Andrina Wafer (QQI) on behalf of our dedicated consortium, thank our co-organisers and sponsors for their unfailing support in hosting this event. 

An evaluation will shortly issue to all delegates inviting feedback. Meanwhile, please sign up for the newsletter, and  join the LinkedIn community to stay up to date with developments!


Further resources


Marrakech Framework for Action | Institute for Lifelong Learning (

European Qualifications Passport for Refugees - Education (

Individual Learning Accounts: where are we now? - European Union (