Renewed push for qualification recognition in Asia

The Sustainable Development Goals, in particular Education 2030, are providing renewed impetus for region-wide and global principles for higher education qualification recognition across borders, according to delegates at a meeting of Asia-Pacific countries hosted by UNESCO to address challenges facing the region’s growing numbers of internationally mobile students.

Delegates from some 30 Asia and Pacific countries at the meeting in Sydney, Australia, agreed to the 'Sydney Statement' on 18 August on “fair and effective” qualifications recognition and quality assurance practices in line with Education 2030’s focus on equitable quality education – part of the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs.

“Students pursue valuable international opportunities to enhance their knowledge, skills and competencies and promote global citizenship. The comparability, recognition and quality assurance of higher education qualifications has become a growing area of concern, particularly in countries where administrative systems are underdeveloped,” the Sydney Statement said.

Of the global goals agreed in September 2015, SDG4, or Education 2030, has as its goal to "ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

Education 2030 requires comparability, recognition and quality assurance in higher education, the meeting noted.

UNESCO member states “are committed to comparability and recognition and the way to do that is to make sure there are some common guidelines in place”, said Wesley Teter, a senior consultant at UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok.

In particular, cross-border degree recognition must be based on transparency and fairness. “If something is not recognised, students deserve to know why not,” Teter told University World News. “There must be appropriate arrangements to assess qualifications; it can’t just be ad hoc.”

Education 2030, with its emphasis on lifelong learning and flexible learning acknowledges diverse modes of learning including MOOCs – massive open online courses – and other forms of distance, open and e-learning.

“When you start opening up all these different pathways and these flexible modes of learning, it becomes even more important and necessary to agree on what is a qualification, what is ‘substantial difference’ [between qualifications] and you need a regional platform to discuss what that means, because if people aren’t sharing information about how they are evaluating qualifications – why they are rejecting people, whether there is access to an appeal process – it’s not going to benefit students,” Teter said.

Complex cross-border landscape

Qualification recognition frameworks should not just depend on the number of years of study, delegates heard at the meeting on 18-19 August, but on quality of learning, as well as other non-certificated and flexible learning, and should include refugees whose higher education may have been disrupted.

Unlike Europe which has a common higher education area and a system of degree recognition and harmonisation under the so-called Bologna process, recognition of qualifications across different higher education systems in Asia can be complex, with a wide variety of systems, and countries at different levels of development.

In addition, the Asia-Pacific region is the largest source of internationally mobile students.

Although there are a number of smaller degree recognition networks within Asia such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN University Network’s quality assurance, and credit transfer systems known as ACTS, to harmonise standards, information on other countries is not centralised and can be difficult to navigate for students planning to study abroad.

“There will always be some people who can push through these different barriers but there will also be a lot of marginalised groups who will not be able to navigate higher education systems in other countries,” Teter told University World News, adding this had become a particularly important issue as SDG4 goals also include “to substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries by 2020”.

With SDG4 promoting scholarships, such awards “shouldn’t just be benefiting middle income countries, they should really be benefiting least developed countries. Our mobility and recognition systems need to ensure everyone has a shot at quality education and lifelong learning,” Teter said.

The Sydney Statement noted the importance of scholarships for access to quality higher education. “Mobility is also achieved through scholarships, which support international opportunities for young people who may not otherwise have access to quality higher education,” the statement said.

Tokyo and Global conventions

UNESCO also wants to revive interest in the Asia-Pacific Regional Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education, also known as the 2011 Tokyo Convention, which lays down basic principles for recognition of higher education qualifications across the region, including increased information and transparency.

Ratification by five member states is needed for the convention to enter into force, but so far only Australia, China and New Zealand have ratified the convention.

The Tokyo Convention includes principles such as granting recognition unless “substantial differences” are identified, placing the burden of proof on the recognition authority, fairly assessing qualifications from non-traditional modes of education, making parties responsible for providing information about their education and quality assurance system, and special provisions for recognising the qualifications of refugees.

According to the Sydney Statement, UNESCO’s regional groups will also consult on a proposed UNESCO Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications, as an overarching umbrella for global and regional recognition, to ensure that education qualifications are recognised “as widely as possible”.

With the drafting group for the proposed UNESCO Global Convention meeting in September, according to the current timetable, a draft text for a global convention could be presented to the UNESCO General Assembly as early as October 2017.