Recognition of foreign credentials is a moral duty

The Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region – known as the Lisbon Recognition Convention – is 20 years old this year. Developed by the Council of Europe and UNESCO, it was adopted and opened for signature and ratification at a ministerial conference in Portugal two years before the launch of the Bologna Process.

The convention has clearly had an impact, but how and what does the future hold?

To study its impact, we need to undertake a journey in time. Before the Lisbon Recognition Convention there were as many as six recognition conventions in Europe (five by the Council of Europe and one by UNESCO), most of them older than the students they were intended to help.

There was a need to simplify, by moving away from the principle of ‘equivalence’ in order to facilitate mobility in the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA, on a larger and a more structural scale.

The drafters of the Lisbon Recognition Convention chose to suggest the daring core principle that those who wish to deny recognition must demonstrate there is a ‘substantial difference’. The difference in terminology indicates an important evolution of attitudes. Those who look for ‘equivalence’ seek to establish that the foreign qualification is essentially similar to their own. If it is, they will recognise it.

The Lisbon Recognition Convention takes a very different approach. The starting point is that foreign qualifications should be recognised. Non-recognition is the exception and needs to be duly explained and justified. Applicants no longer need to prove that their qualifications are ‘good enough’; it is up to the recognition body to demonstrate that they are not.

Recognition bodies may do that by demonstrating that the differences between the applicant’s qualification and comparable qualifications in their own system are such that the applicant will most likely not be able to use the qualification in the ways he or she envisages. Substantial differences, then, are differences that impact on the purposes for which recognition is sought.

With the Lisbon Recognition Convention, the methodology changed from looking for similarities that could possibly justify recognition to verifying that there are no differences substantial enough to make recognition impossible.

Since national qualifications differ from country to country in the EHEA, the operationalisation of this principle will naturally also differ. However, one could question whether the application of the core principle differs too much from country to country, which is one of the findings of the report Monitoring the Implementation of the Lisbon Recognition Convention from 2016. The principles of the convention apply to and are crucial in the admission and recognition processes at European higher education institutions.

In the Bologna Process, this was clearly addressed in the Bucharest Communiqué of 2012 where ministers committed to “support[ing] the work of a pathfinder group of countries exploring ways to achieve the automatic academic recognition of comparable degrees”.

Unleashed potential

The ambition in the Yerevan Communiqué of 2015 was to “ensure that qualifications from other EHEA countries are automatically recognised at the same level as relevant domestic qualifications” by 2020.

There is still an unleashed potential in the implementation of the principles of the convention at European higher education institutions. This is documented in the findings of the Focus on Automatic Institutional Recognition or FAIR project, an Erasmus+ project led by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and NUFFIC (Dutch ENIC-NARIC).

The findings show that many higher education institutions struggle to develop a clear understanding of what the principle in the convention could mean in their own work.

A core measure in the operationalisation of the Lisbon Recognition Convention was the establishing of national ENIC-NARIC offices as national information centres.

Even though the organisational set-up and size of the centres vary greatly from country to country, there is one important common denominator: the responsibility the ENIC-NARIC offices have to inform the outside world on their own national qualifications and to be a source of expertise on foreign qualifications to national stakeholders.

The recognition centres cooperate within the ENIC and NARIC networks to develop recognition policy and practice in the European region.

The Lisbon Recognition Convention is the only legally binding treaty in the EHEA. It has been ratified by 53 countries. In order to keep the Lisbon Recognition Convention relevant and updated over the past 20 years, subsidiary texts have been developed, partly related to developments in the EHEA. There are, for example, operationally oriented texts on the use of qualifications frameworks, on joint degrees and on the assessment of foreign qualifications.

In addition, the useful European Area of Recognition Manual or EAR Manual and the European Recognition Manual for Higher Education Institutions give practical guidelines for recognition in accordance with the convention.

Provision for refugees

The convention also includes, in Article VII, provisions regarding refugees, displaced persons and persons in a refugee-like situation. This section applies in cases where documentary evidence is insufficient.

In 2015, with a record-high number of refugees coming to Europe, it became evident that most countries did not have provisions in place concerning refugees. Currently there is ongoing work on a subsidiary text to the convention which will explain more clearly the obligations and possibilities concerning recognition of refugees’ qualifications.

Today, new tools for recognition of refugees’ qualifications have been developed and are in place. A methodology, which includes documentary evidence, self-evaluation and a concluding structured interview by experienced credential evaluators, is in place in countries like Norway and Italy.

The ongoing Erasmus+ project Toolkit for Recognition of Higher Education for Refugees will establish principles, tools and methodologies to assess refugees’ qualifications.

Currently, the Council of Europe is carrying out a top of the line project to establish a European Qualifications Passport for Refugees. Testing, based on Norwegian methodology, is currently taking place in Greece, in cooperation with the Greek authorities and with the assistance of four ENIC-NARIC offices.

Over the past few months, 54 refugees have received the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees based on an assessment of their qualifications. In eight cases, the evaluators found they could not issue the document because they could not establish that the applicants had the qualifications they claimed to have.

An important aspect is that the project aims to save time and money for both authorities and refugees. The standard format and methodology of the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees makes it unnecessary to assess the same qualifications again as refugees currently are being relocated from Southern Europe to other European countries.

An inspiration

It is important to keep in mind that the Lisbon Recognition Convention has had an impact outside the region it was set to serve; the convention has been an inspiration for the work in other regions, as well as globally. Both the Tokyo Recognition Convention of 2011 for the Asia-Pacific Region and the Addis Ababa Convention of 2014 for the African states build on similar principles.

Globally, UNESCO has ongoing work to establish a global convention on the recognition of higher education qualifications, and the aim is that fair, transparent and generous principles will become the basis for academic mobility on an inter-regional and a global level.

Could one imagine the EHEA without the Lisbon Recognition Convention? Possibly. However, without the convention we would not have seen the same level and quality of mobility and internationalisation at higher education institutions as we experience today in the EHEA. One could argue that it would not be possible for the EHEA to aim at 20% mobility by 2020 without the success of the Lisbon Recognition Convention.

The convention has helped develop the attitudes and methodology of credentials evaluators, so that, in applying the concept of ‘substantial difference’, they now increasingly look for factors that may make the recognition of foreign qualifications possible, rather than for obstacles to recognition.

It has also provided a basis, through the ENIC and NARIC networks, for greatly improved international cooperation in developing policy, methodology and practice. There is, we believe, a stronger focus on how recognition can help applicants and less on ‘protecting’ one’s own system.

Still, even after 20 years of facilitating mobility based on the Lisbon Recognition Convention, ministries, ENIC-NARICs and higher education institutions need to keep on implementing and re-addressing the principles of the convention in an ever-changing EHEA.

Recognition of foreign qualifications is more than a technical exercise. Recognition is more than a preparation for further studies or employment. Recognition is a key to building inclusive societies, to preparing for democratic citizenship, to facilitating empowerment and to reducing the risk of alienation from the holders of foreign qualifications.

Not least, recognition is important in providing opportunities for individuals. The recognition of foreign qualifications is therefore a moral duty. Therefore, we must always keep in mind that there is an individual behind every qualification, an applicant who has chosen or been forced to undertake the academic journey to another country and another educational system.

As a ‘recognition community’, one of our main tasks is to make that journey smooth and worthwhile.

Sjur Bergan is head of the Education Department at the Council of Europe. He has been central in both the development of the Bologna Process/European Higher Education Area and the Lisbon Recognition Convention. Stig Arne Skjerven is director of foreign education in NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC). He is the president of the ENIC Network – European Network of Information Centres – and is a member of the drafting committee of UNESCO’s global recognition convention.