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The competence--a new paradigm in training and educational sectors.


In the '80 the Great Britain has started to standardise the occupations and professions, based on a new concept, namely occupational standards. The core of this approach is the competence. Around this concept other very valuable concepts were born and the Germans brought an important contribution, due to the fact that their educational system is perceived as being outstanding, not only at University level, but also at Vocational level. Concepts as social and cognitive competences, core, general and specific competences, learning objectives and outcomes, levels of responsibility, qualitative benchmarks, qualification and educational standards have been developed in order to implement the best practice to train and educate people, not only in the schooling period, but also throughout life.

According to this conceptual framework, the entities implied in training and education, the teaching and learning processes, the timetable and the way in which an individual reaches the desired knowledge, skills and competences (through formal, informal or nonformal ways) are considered to be neutral factors. The essential element is the outcome, the required competence.

The technical and scientific revolutions, practical implementation of their outputs in everyday life activated the labour market, which became more fluid and more dynamic, requiring new occupations/professions. Among them there are the training providers, which noticed the discrepancy between the needs of the real labour market and the employees' skills. Two phenomena were observed: on one hand the rising of unemployment, on the other hand a constant supply of jobs for which there is no qualified workforce. In fact the employability has become a key element in analysing the labour market, highlighting the functional illiteracy.

The labour market is now globalised and imposes transparency, integration and equal opportunities, in order to keep pace with the economic and social development and with the knowledge-based society. The educational services are public services, regardless of their providers (public or private entities) and their quality is considered to be a part of the strategic interest of each nation. Therefore, the quality assurance must be supervised and regulated. The free market and the supply and demand are important factors for breaking the monopoly of the 'classic' educational suppliers, but not enough for an increasingly competitive market.

In Romania (and according to some studies, the situation is similar in many countries), the classic school (vocational and university) ceased to prepare the workforce needed for more and more diverse and complex businesses within so-called knowledge society. Its certificates and diplomas proved to be worthless; pointing out that the period in which jobs were forever has just ended. Moreover, the professional experience may be valued in the workplace without the existence of any formal document. The University studies were considered long-term investments, rewarded with the possibility of advancement up the corporate ladder. The knowledge-based society implies long life learning. However, it seems that, generally speaking, some of the young learn "despite the formal education" (Miller, 2003), which has become, generally speaking, ineffective.

Some milestones in the development of the Romanian Occupational and Educational Standards

In this respect Romania has established the competent bodies and the necessary legal framework. There have been created partnerships with the purpose of writing, updating and implementing the occupational standards. The implementation of OSs was possible due to a World Bank program (in the mid of '90), resulting a key body, the Council for Occupational Standards and Awarding (COSA, 1994), which transformed into the National Council for Adult Education and Training (CNFPA, 2003), now being reorganised as National Authority for Qualifications (ANC). The World Bank programme trained a group of specialists (and the author of the work paper was among them) to understand the specific terminology and activities, to write OSs and to develop occupational analysis. There was a new vision concerning the way in which jobs/occupations and professions are seen by all the involved actors (trade unions, professional associations, employers and employees, state agencies and so on).

The partnerships have an important role in the development and the implementation of OSs and qualifications, as well as their synchronization with the labour market. The interested parties (stakeholders) are trade unions, industrial committees, local communities, governmental agencies (as National Agency for the Labour Force), training providers, Universities and Vocational schools, non-governmental organizations (NGO) and so on. Former CNFPA developed and updated the methodological framework for the occupational analysis, the methodological framework for the design and revision of the occupational standards and associated qualifications and the methodological framework for the verification and validation of the occupational standards and associated qualifications (the project PHARE 2004 EuropeAid/121949/D/SV/RO).

These methodological frameworks led to the elaboration of the application guides, whose role is to offer practical instruments to design occupational analysis, occupational standards and associated qualifications. These methodologies are tools available for stakeholders who are interested in participating in the development of qualifications. The practical results are the development of the National Qualifications Framework, according to the European Qualifications Framework. The occupational and qualification standards and the principles around them aim to modernising the education/training (in broader sense) and to allow the validation of competences acquired by the jobholders.

Unlike other areas, Romania ranks very well in this regard. Moreover, our country is developing the Educational Standards according to the recommendation of the European Parliament, based on Lisbon strategy. The National Framework of Qualifications in Higher Education (CNCIS) "is the unique instrument which designs the qualifications structure and assures the national awarding, as well as the compatibility and comparability of the qualifications acquired within the higher education system" (Official Gazette, 2011). The responsible body is the National Agency for the Qualifications in Higher Education and Partnership with the economical and social sector (ACPART). "Qualification means a formal outcome of an assessment and validation process, which is obtained when a competent body determines that an individual has achieved learning outcomes to given standards" (Official Journal of the European Union, 2008: 2). In fact the qualification should be seen as the missing link between the real world of work and the formal educational systems. The former is dynamic and flexible and the latter has proved to be conservative, inflexible, and even obsolete.

Occupational and educational standards

According to European Centre for Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP): "occupation standards may specify 'the main jobs that people do', describing the professional tasks and activities as well as the competences typical of an occupation. Occupational standards answer the question 'What does the student need to be able to do in employment?'" (Cedefop panorama series, 2009: 11). "The occupational standards are specific documents which describe what a person should know and should be able to do in order to be competent for a job." (ANC, 2013). The student (apprentice, pupil, learner, trainee--the student is used for simplicity) must perform a task/work, must exercise an occupation or profession, according to a qualitative standard (a set of criteria associated with the activities described by OSs).

First, Occupational Standards (OSs) are means to connect the employment requirements with the education/training processes, in other words to improve the employability.

Secondly, OSs offer a framework concerning the comparability and transparency, allowing the workforce mobility.

Thirdly, the educational market becomes a competitive market, the accumulated experience during the working process can be quantified and valorised for the benefit of people and the society, in other words it is possible "a validation of non-formal and informal learning." (Official Journal of the European Union, 2008: 2) Thus, the Diploma/Certificate becomes the proof that the owner can perform tasks/activities, can exercise an occupation/profession, and not that the owner attended a school/course and got a paper.

Fourth, the training/educational systems cease to be closed (a kind of black box). Socially and economically there are other interested parties such as professional associations, employers, industry committees, employments services, local authorities, etc. Their role is to allow the system to fulfil its tasks. Moreover, this framework should implement the transparency and the accountability of the assessment processes through the independent awarding bodies.

Fifth, the modularisation and the flexibility of the OSs allow periodical updates of the qualifications, curricula and the assessment methodologies in order to synchronise with the labour market.

The European Parliament Council issued in 2008 a recommendation on the establishment of the European Qualification Framework for lifelong learning, published in the Official Journal of the European Union. This document primary defines the concepts and principles and secondly motivates the necessity of interconnecting the labour market to the formal educational systems "to develop a framework for the recognition of qualifications for both education and training, building on the achievements of the Bologna process and promoting similar action in the area of vocational training." (Official Journal of the European Union, 2008: 1)

Almost all the countries, members of the European Union, successfully adopted and implemented the recommendation, as a result of its stated goal that "should contribute to modernising education and training systems, the interrelationship of education, training and employment and building bridges between formal, non-formal and informal learning, leading also to the validation of learning outcomes acquired through experience," (Official Journal of the European Union, 2008: 2). As recommendation it "does not replace or define national qualifications systems and/or qualifications. The European Qualifications Framework (EQF) does not describe specific qualifications or an individual's competences and particular qualifications should be referenced to the appropriate European Qualifications Framework level by way of the relevant national qualifications systems." (Official Journal of the European Union, 2008: 2). Every country is responsible to define and describe the OS's, Qualification standards (QSs) and so on according to the national practice and legislation.

An important development in the spirit of the European Union recommendation is the process of translation from the Occupational Standards to Educational Standards (ESs). The Educational Standards resulted as a natural development, being somehow different from OSs as a result of the specific pedagogical approach, in which there is a "progressive accumulation of knowledge and skills, and not the logic of a systematic description of occupational tasks, functions and associated competences." (Cedefop panorama series, 2009: 7). Moreover, there is a connection between the two, as the ultimate goal of every level of 'classical school' is to 'arm' the graduate with the necessary competences, in order to find an adequate job or to continue smoothly the next educational level.

The mismatch, especially between education and the labour market, has been noticed for a long time, but nowadays, for businesses the discrepancy means also the impossibility to find properly qualified people for a large range of jobs. The reason could be that educational systems "fail to develop the competencies needed in the workplace." (Lassnigg, 2001). They could not keep the pace with the economic reality due to their inertia, due to the long lags when good educational reforms are implemented, and due to the conservative character of the systems. In education people are the main element of the system and the reforms should touch the spirit, the habits and the values of a critical mass.

The CEDEFOP highlighted that "education standards may define the expected outcomes of the learning process, leading to the award of a qualification, the study programme in terms of content, learning objectives and timetable, as well as teaching methods and learning settings, such as in-company or school-based learning. Educational standards answer the question 'What does the student need to learn to be effective in employment?'" (Cedefop panorama series, 2009: 11). The elaboration and implementation principles of CNCIS are:

--"The harmonization of the higher education qualifications to the labour market;

--The link between the higher education qualifications and the other qualification levels;

--The harmonization of the higher education programmes to the professional qualifications requirements.

--The achievement of the university curricula starting from the professional competences which are required on the labour market." (The methodology for the National Qualifications Framework in Higher Education, 2013)

The aforementioned document defines the specific concepts of ESs, namely professional and transversal competences.

The professional competence means the proven ability to select, combine and use appropriately knowledge, skills and other achievement (values and attitudes) to successfully solve certain types of activities (at work) or learning situations related to a profession, under effectiveness and efficiency.

The transversal competences are those skills that transcend a particular field study, carrying a transdisciplinary nature. They consist of teamwork skills, oral and written communication, skills in native and foreign language, IT&C, problem solving and decision making, recognition and respect for diversity and multiculturalism, propensity for lifelong learning, openness and initiative, development of professional values and ethics, etc.

Based on the CNCIS methodology "each qualification is defined through the learning outcomes, expressed by knowledge, skills and competences." (Official Gazette, 2011)

Knowledge, skill and the relationship with competence

The core of the occupational and educational standards is competence and the educational systems should be competence-based. The learning, teaching and training processes should be developed around the competence concept. As information concept, the generic concept of competence is difficult to be defined due to the abstract nature of the word. The definition of CEDEFOP, as it says from the very beginning, is customized for this purpose. In the paper Berufsbildungs-PISA: Machbarkeitsstudie (Baethge, Martin et al. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2006), Baethge, as cited in the CEDEFOP paper (Cedefop panorama series, 2009: 33), identifies five level describing the feature of the competence concept:

"(a) 'generic': transferable competences ('key skills'), not linked to a particular occupational context;

(b) 'occupational': targeting occupational competences for a wide range of occupations, formulated in a highly abstract way;

(c) 'task-specific but independent of specific jobs': linked to the description of specific tasks

(for instance roof tiling) without describing exactly how the task has to be fulfilled;

(d) 'job-specific, enterprise-specific' based on the description of the way tasks have to be executed in a specific organisational context;

(e) 'person-specific' based on a description of how an individual carries out tasks in a particular system."

A competence creates value and can be identified by several elements which should be observable, definable and measurable. Starting from the definition "occupation standards may specify 'the main jobs that people do'", the occupational standards are elaborated documents that comply some rules, developed in several stages.

Within OSs a competence is not too simple, nor too complex (if so it should be split into several competences), leads to measurable outcomes through qualitative benchmarks, is occupational, task specific but independent of specific jobs (see above).

According to the definition of professional competence within ESs, this seems to be more complex, it is related to a profession (in my opinion university studies prepare the graduates for a pool of occupations, not for a specific occupation) and the 'success' as benchmark has loosely and not measurable nature. Moreover, the learning outputs of given course (subject, discipline) 'arm' the student with some 'pieces of competences' and these should be corroborated to other pieces of competences acquired from other courses, laboratory activities, practice, etc., in order to fulfil a task in the real world of work.

Is there a difference between knowledge and competence?

"Knowledge means the outcome of the assimilation of information through learning. Knowledge is the body of facts, principles, theories and practices that is related to a field of work or study." (Official Journal of the European Union, 2008: 4) In the context of the European Qualifications Framework, knowledge is described as theoretical and/or factual. The concept of skill underlines the practical aspects of using the cognitive information. The attitude is the way in which an individual puts into practice his/hers knowledge and skills, in order to solve tasks/activities.

Concerning the competence, it concentrates knowledge, skills and attitude which allow the practice of an occupation in accordance with certain quality standards, conditions and contexts. Moreover, the competence can be proved by (a) taking the responsibility for completing a task; (b) using the appropriate instruments, equipments, devices, materials, etc. to fulfil activities; (c) cooperating with others in order to complete required tasks; (d) proving an autonomous behaviour in work assignments; (e) using the experiences gained previously; (f) modifying the routines if necessary; (g) imposing changes as stated goals. Thus the competence itself is multifactorial and has two facets, namely personal and social competences.

Key competences

The competence-based education means that a pool of indispensable competence should be appropriate assimilated, in several stages, during schooling periods, in order to demonstrate that the individual copes the real life throughout the creativity, the ability to take decisions, the personal initiative, solving problems, assessing risks, demonstrating critical and reflective thinking, all these items both in personal and professional life. These competences generated the concept of key competences which should be back up by an appropriate attitude which round the individual personality such positive attitude, the sense of collaboration, assertiveness, determination and motivation, overcoming the prejudices and so on. "Key competences are those which all individuals need for personal fulfilment and development, active citizenship, social inclusion and employment." (Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2007: 3)

According to the European Reference Framework there are eight key competences: (1) communication in the mother tongue; (2) communication in foreign languages; (3) mathematical competence and basic competences in science and technology; (4) digital competence; (5) learning to learn; (6) social and civic competences; (7) sense of initiative and entrepreneurship; (8) cultural awareness and expression." The development of these competences was part of The Strategy for the development of education 2001-2004. Prospective planning until 2010 (Romania), within the primary and secondary education.

Core competences

In my research I found out three approaches of this concept.

The first, (Prahalad and Hamel, 1990) identified the main feature of so-called core competence, namely the uniqueness. Armed by these competences, the employees create value that is very difficult to be copied by the competitors. The cutting edges companies are examples of entities implementing the core competencies. "Core competencies are knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA) that are required by individuals in an organization to become successful. Core competencies are important because they are the foundation of an organization's culture and drive the behaviours that define its success." (

The second approach is strongly related to the very individual on the labour market. According to this approach an individual should be: customer focused, cooperative and collaborative, understanding and compassionate, self-starter and have a strong work ethic, flexible and embrace change, an effective communicator, a problem solver, responsible and honest, emotionally mature, a continuous learner, an innovator, a leader (http://www.anythinklibraries .org/).

The third approach is related to the occupational standards framework and defines core or general competence within a specific industry (health, education, financial services, etc.). Thus, the general competences represent those competences that all employees are expected to demonstrate in order to carry out appropriately the functions of a particular occupation.

For instance in the UK financial services the core (general) competences are: "(1) Develop yourself to improve and maintain workplace competence in a financial services environment; (2) Plan and organise your work in a financial services environment; (3) Develop productive working relationships in a financial services environment; (4) Ensure you comply with regulations in your financial services environment." (National Occupational Standards for the Financial Services Sector)

For Romanian banking industry the general competences are: (1) Application of the legal provision on safety and health at work and in emergency situations; (2) Application of the customer due diligence (CDD); (3) Application of the rules to ensure the security of bank information.

Competences, outcomes and learning environment

"Learning outcome means statements of what a learner knows, understands and is able to do on completion of a learning process, which are defined in terms of knowledge, skills and competence." (Official Journal of the European Union, 2008: 1) Within the classic educational systems (primary, secondary, high school and university) learning outcome is in a way an elaborated concept for learning objectives, which teachers write down in their syllabuses. Moreover, learning outcome can be seen as double-folded: (a) generic and (b) linked by the context. "Another area of confusion for some people is the relationship between learning outcomes and competence." (Cedefop, 2011: 12)

Under the headline Knowledge, Skills and the relationship with competence the work paper identified the features of the competence, on short being more than a simple outcome. The cognitive and non-cognitive learning outcomes (skills) should be linked, with generic and person specific skills in order to be competent at workplace, namely within a working environment. That why, as the cited document recommended, the right concept is competence-based education, qualification, etc.

Outside the working context (place, team, deadlines pressure, relationships between different practical or theoretical knowledge, etc.) a student may be assessed as acquiring an appropriate level of competence, but in fact he/she proved to cope with the evaluation criteria and the evaluation criteria cannot simulate the working environment. In fact, the schools 'arm' the students with theoretical knowledge and 'laboratory contexts' and in this way the emphasis on the practice should be understood. The practice has become more and more important in the eyes of the employers more than the grades, certificates and diplomas, as it allows contextualisation, the practical use of various knowledge and personal skills, the power of adjustment and so on. The employers do not only value the business practice, but also the work experience in non-business areas. Clearly stated learning outcomes "can have a social and political purpose in that they make the education and training system (including qualifications) more transparent to all users and in that sense can shift the balance of influence over the way the system operates (for example it can contribute to an accountability system)." (Cedefop, 2011: 8)

Clearly stated learning outcomes, practice, individual and team projects and other teaching and learning techniques coupled with appropriate evaluation methods could lead to competence. Active and pro-active learning are ingredients for acquiring the required competences, according to the individual needs.

The sociological studies have long argued that the crucial factor in modelling non-cognitive skills/competences (soft skills) is the family as the family transfers to the children, consciously and unconsciously, values as self discipline, aspirations, etc., namely the behavioural model. Moreover, within learning environment we should bear in mind that "cognitive skills (hard skills) undergo the greatest amount of change in early childhood and stabilize by adolescence" whereas "noncognitive skills, on the other hand, continue to undergo changes throughout childhood and into young adulthood (sensitive period hypothesis)." (Hsin and Yu, 2012: 9)

This aspect is especially important for the university:

--if cognitive skills/competences are not appropriate shaped, the Young start university studies with a certain handicap, which should be removed;

--as non-cognitive skills/competences are not yet in place (the prevailing view is that these skills are flexible beyond the age of twenty), the University should shape and stabilize them accordingly, as they prove to be determinant in the labour market success.

--anyhow in higher education the competences development is focused on the cognitive ones. There is not enough room and time in the curricula, there is no time in the classroom to put completely into action the soft skills. The most important soft skills are "The Big Five" or O.C.E.A.N.: "Openness to Experience; Conscientiousness; Extraversion; Agreeableness; Neuroticism." (Goldberg, 1971)

The Big Five can be completed by the Positive and Negative Reciprocity, Locus of Control scale (described by Rotter (1966) in Generalized Expectancies for Internal versus External Control of Reinforcement. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.) and by the Brief Self-Control Scale (described by Tangney et al., (2004) in High Self-Control Predicts Good Adjustment, Less Pathology, Better Grades, and Interpersonal Success, Journal of Personality).

For instance, the first (openness to experience) implies intellectual stimulation, change and variety (fantasy, curiosity, creativity), which in fact shape the competence. The evaluation formulas used on the large scale in the schooling period are multiple-choice questionnaires, in which it is very difficult to assess subtitles. The Cedefop report stressed the learning outcomes in different segments of education and training. "The emphasis is on defining key competences and learning outcomes to shape the learner's experience, rather than giving primacy to the content of the subjects that make up the curriculum. Learning outcomes are being used in a range of countries to point the way to modernising schooling systems, thus acting as a renewing and reforming influence at different levels--governance, systemic reform, curriculum, pedagogy and assessment." (Cedefop, 2011: 9)

Concerning the higher education the above document stated that "learning outcomes also have an increasingly prominent role in higher education. The evidence is that the learning outcomes approach, on which there is broad agreement at the European policy level and often at policy level in Member States, is being adopted more slowly at the level of higher education institutions. Even if progress is slow, the learning outcomes perspective may point towards a major shift in the reform of higher education teaching and learning in the longer term."


Anyhow there are differences, the critical concept in ESs is the outcome, which does not overlap the competence. For instance an individual knows who painted Mona Lisa (perhaps form school or from his/her reading), it is an outcome (formal or informal obtained), but he/she lacks the competences as an art critic (qualification). Hereby some concepts need to be used according to their proper definition and the universities should bear in mind that they do not offer qualifications, but rather potential qualifications (on short, a qualification means a pool of combined competences, which have been properly assess, according to qualitative standards).

Many concepts developed, enriched and defined by OSs are taken over into ESs, sometimes overlapping the definitions of the former. This aspect, in my opinion, has a negative impact especially over the outcomes expected from the graduates. The excessive focus on the concept of competence obscures the correct identification of the real and required outcomes, resulting from the courses (subjects).

In my opinion the university does not 'supplies' individuals with a specific qualification. The University supplies individuals with a pool of narrow competences (according to the study programmes), which allows them to integrate, easier or not, into the labour market in order to practice an occupation. Of course other training providers could offer training for certain qualifications and their certificates could have the same value on the labour market. Thus the Universities should adapt and cope with the fierce competition. For now the Romania universities have a slight advantage, due to the importance of the university diploma in the eyes of the employers. This advantage, however, begins to lose. The competence-based education/training has created a competitive market for training bidders, which offer courses for obtaining qualifications in the most required fields. Their advantage is that the trainers are practitioners with a high level of experience, the courses are very flexible, can be organised on levels, according to the level of trainees.

In my opinion there is a new upsurge of the form without substance on the syllabuses, any item must carry general and specific competences, as the transversal competences (concept belonging to ESs and defined above). In the university period it is very difficult to fill the accumulated gaps in this matter. Thus within the syllabuses I notice that 'to know' it is a competence (!?), so the enumerated outcomes are practically a series of 'knows'. In fact they are outcomes/outputs, which could become narrow competences, if and only if they are properly contextualised and assess. The massification of higher education, the lack of time, the narrow possibilities to simulate the contexts do not allow a proper assessment, as well as an effective monitoring of the students evolution.

In my opinion the good defined learning outcomes are more valuable than a list of competences which cannot be transferred (would-be competences). But the idea does not diminish the importance of ESs and competence-based education. Yes, educational standards are forward steps in improving the educational systems, but not panacea. Yes, the educational standards allow flexibility, transparency, mobility, comparability, accountability (for professors and students), broader recognition, and synchronisation with the labour market. The university studies should not be limited to transfer practical and theoretical outcomes/competences, as other training providers, they need to head out beyond. Both universities and other education providers have their role in the knowledge society. They enter in competition, but have complementary functions. Therefore, the career orientation of the young people is becoming increasingly important to their success in the profession and personal life, enhancing economic and social domains.


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Cedefop panorama series (2009). The dynamics of qualifications: defining and renewing occupational and educational standards. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities

Cedefop (2011). The Shift to Learning Outcomes; Policies and Practices in Europe. Using learning outcome. Qualification Framework Series: Note 4 (2011), Available at:

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Goldberg, L. (1971). A Historical Survey of Personality Scales and Inventories, in Advances in Psychological Assessment, ed. by P. McReynolds, Science and Behavior Books, Palo Alto, California, pp. 293-336

Hsin, A., Yu, X. (2012). Hard skills, soft skills: the relative role of cognitive and noncognitive skills in intergenerational social mobility. Report 12-775, Feb. 2012, Population Studies Center

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Miller, R. (2003). The Future of the Tertiary Education Sector: Scenarios for a Learning Society. Workpaper prepared for the OECD/Japanese Seminar on the Future of Universities, Tokyo, December 11-12, 2003

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Official Gazette, Part 1, no. 880 bis/13.XII.2011, The Order no. 5,703/2011 of the Minister of Education concerning the implementation of the National Qualifications Framework in Higher Education

Prahalad, C., K., Hamel, G., (1990). The Core Competence of the Corporation. Harvard Business Review, v. 68, no. 3, pp. 79-91 %20Core%20Competencies%20Cover%20Letter.pdf (December 2013)

Ileana Nicula, Associate Professor, Ph.D., Christian University "Dimitrie Cantemir"--Bucharest, Faculty of Finance, Banking and Accounting, Finance and Banks Department, Phone: 0722882515, e-mail;
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Title Annotation:Original paper
Author:Nicula, Ileana
Publication:Revista de Stiinte Politice
Article Type:Report
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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