Why Asian states need to ratify the UNESCO convention

As an international education development professional and a scholar of higher education regionalism, I have been contemplating the slow ratification of the UNESCO 2011 Asia-Pacific Recognition Convention.

Considering the developments and progress in the European Higher Education Area and the Lisbon Recognition Convention, the slow ratification of the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Recognition Convention defers the numerous benefits for UNESCO Asia-Pacific member states and slows the momentum for increased access, equity and quality of higher education for refugees, displaced persons and those in refugee-like situations.

UNESCO Asia-Pacific recognition conventions

Starting with Latin America and the Caribbean in 1974, UNESCO has adopted a number of regional recognition conventions, including the Asia-Pacific Recognition Convention, which was adopted in 1983. In 2011, noting the changing times and requirements, the revised Asia-Pacific Recognition Convention was adopted in Tokyo.

To date, only 21 of the 48 UNESCO Asia-Pacific member states have ratified the 1983 Asia-Pacific Recognition Convention, while only three UNESCO Asia-Pacific member states have ratified the 2011 Tokyo Recognition Convention, officially entitled the Asia-Pacific Regional Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education.

The revised Asia-Pacific Recognition Convention marked a shift in favour of applicants and the development of transparent, coherent and reliable procedures, granting recognition unless substantial differences were identified. It also promoted information sharing and networking at the expert level, the development of good codes of practice or recommendations and guidelines in addition to a solid legal framework.

Of particular importance was the inclusion of a recognition of partial studies, non-traditional higher education qualifications, the use of the diploma supplement, the development and maintenance of national information centres and the recognition of qualifications held by refugees, displaced persons and those in a refugee-like situation.

As such, the revised Asia-Pacific Recognition Convention is significantly more transparent, less prescriptive, more equitable and more comprehensive than its predecessor. However, a lack of understanding of the numerous benefits of the ratification of the 2011 Tokyo Recognition Convention as well as procedural and political considerations may have impeded its ratification.

The benefits of ratification

Ratifying the 2011 Tokyo Recognition Convention brings numerous benefits. In terms of international student mobility, a transparent, coherent and reliable recognition procedure facilitates recognition of higher education qualifications (and even partial studies), which enhances greater international student mobility.

It also aids the distribution of higher education provision, something which is highly beneficial for UNESCO Asia-Pacific member states which lack the capacity to absorb demand for higher education.

Given the demographic challenge faced by various nation states in the region, recognition of higher education qualifications improves the effectiveness of the international student gateway to international labour markets. It provides skilled, competent, adaptable future employees who have been exposed to various cultural environments, which should help with national sustainable economic development.

Although the issue of brain drain has been raised in international student mobility discussions alongside increasing competition for the best and brightest minds globally, knowledge circulation has been advanced as a more appropriate perspective.

International students and future employees and entrepreneurs contribute not only to their host countries, but also to their country of origin. The remittances of foreign workers have supported developing countries’ economic development. International students returning to their home countries after a period of work abroad contribute to entrepreneurial initiatives, improved efficiency and productivity in various organisations and government agencies.

In addition, those who become entrepreneurs contribute to national economic development through value chains, support for local industries and in other ways, while those who become scientists contribute globally through their discoveries and their application.

Furthermore, ratifying the 2011 Tokyo Recognition Convention facilitates greater international understanding and supports peace-building efforts regionally and globally.

The international student experience has been shown to increase intercultural awareness and tolerance for other cultures and practices and fosters lasting friendships in spite of cultural differences. As such, increased international student mobility brings a new generation of leaders and global citizens who support efforts to create sustainable peace in our global community.

Lastly, the 2011 Tokyo Recognition Convention also increases equity and access to higher education for the world’s most vulnerable population. Recognising qualifications of refugees, displaced persons and persons in refugee-like situations not only facilitates access to further education and-or the labour market, it also supports their integration in their host communities, reduces the costs for hosting nation states, makes them self-sufficient and increases their capacity to support fellow refugees and displaced persons.

Call for ratification

Aside from the ongoing revision of other UNESCO regional recognition conventions, UNESCO is currently in the process of drafting a Global Recognition Convention.

To date, there are only three revised regional recognition conventions, namely the Lisbon Convention, the Tokyo Convention and the Addis Ababa Convention, which cover Europe, Asia-Pacific and Africa respectively. The revision of the older regional recognition conventions highlights the need to adapt to changing realities and requirements.

The ongoing drafting of the Global Recognition Convention points to the various benefits that recognition of higher education qualifications can bring and to the need for a transparent, accountable and equitable recognition procedure globally.

The ratification and implementation of the Lisbon Convention, alongside the Bologna Process and related initiatives, have seen significant developments for European higher education. Given the population, economic strength and development of the Asia-Pacific region, the ratification of the 2011 Tokyo Recognition Convention should see increased international student mobility among UNESCO Asia-Pacific member states.

Supported with initiatives that enhance regionalisation of higher education in the Asia-Pacific region, the region could become the next powerhouse in international higher education. Furthermore, the global community, including UNESCO Asia-Pacific member states, has expressed support for the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals where education is presented as a cross-cutting goal required to achieve the SDGs.

Ratifying the 2011 Tokyo Recognition Convention significantly contributes to access, equity, relevance and quality of higher education, helps address demographic challenges, supports sustainable economic development and addresses key issues related to the world’s vulnerable population.

It also partly addresses UNESCO Asia-Pacific member states’ support for the achievement of the SDGs.

Furthermore, it promotes and facilitates a much-needed international understanding and the peace-building efforts necessary to build a sustainable, peaceful and prosperous global community.

As such, I call on the governments of the UNESCO Asia-Pacific member states to ratify the 2011 Tokyo Recognition Convention as soon as possible.

Roger Chao Jr is senior consultant of the UNESCO International Centre for Higher Education Innovation, China.