Purpose - This paper aims to explain the distinction between educational standards and learning outcomes and to indicate the problems that potentially arise when a learning outcomes approach is applied to a qualification meta-framework like the European Qualification Framework, or indeed to national qualification frameworks. Design/methodology/approach - The methods used are documentary, political and conceptual analysis, with some reference to empirical work carded out in relation to other projects. Findings - It is found that there are substantial differences between learning outcomes and standards with large educational and political implications. Furthermore, the "pure" form of learning outcomes approach contains a design flaw, which makes its coherent implementation problematic. Research limitations/implications - The stimulation of further research on learning outcomes based approaches to qualifications and the problems that arise in their implementation. Practical implications - The EU needs to think carefully about the fitness for purpose of the current descriptors for EQF and whether or not it is desirable to move away from a pure outcome-based approach to qualification frameworks and meta-frameworks. Originality/value - As far as the authors are aware, this is the first paper to draw attention to this distinction.