A global recognition convention for academic mobility

The 39th Session of the General Conference of UNESCO last month gave the green light to continue the work on UNESCO’s academic mobility convention, the Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications, with the aim of formally adopting the new convention by UNESCO’s next general conference in November 2019.

Why should this be of interest to the academic community? Over the past generation, there has been an explosion in international student mobility worldwide. According to the OECD, the number of international students in higher education has risen from 0.8 million in the late 1970s to 4.6 million in 2015.

This increase has been accompanied by a growth in interregional student mobility, with 2.5 million international students studying in a country outside their region of origin, according to UNESCO in the preliminary report on a potential global convention.

In many countries, higher education has become an international commodity and learners are increasingly willing to make a substantial investment of their time and money in an international education that will help them get ahead.

A prerequisite for further increases in student mobility is comparability across education systems and transferability of the qualifications obtained by mobile students.

Even though some students study abroad as the first step in a process that leads to permanent migration, a large majority of internationally mobile students eventually return home. Some of them might end up working in a field where the fact that they have studied at a well-known university is enough, but many will need to get a formal recognition of their foreign qualification before they can apply for further studies or work.

For the students’ investments in time and money in higher education to pay off, they must be confident that the qualifications they have earned abroad can be recognised in another country, including their home country.

The first global recognition convention

As the only United Nations agency with a mandate in higher education, UNESCO has long supported member states in the recognition of studies, credentials and qualifications, particularly through the development of six regional recognition conventions in the 1970s and 1980s.

Although some of the conventions have been largely dormant, the Lisbon Recognition Convention (1997) was an important precursor to the ensuing harmonisation efforts in European higher education through the Bologna Process and the creation of the European Higher Education Area. However, as regional conventions, none gave the signatory states an obligation to recognise studies or qualifications from outside their region.

A new convention will be the first normative instrument of recognition with a global scope. Implemented in coordination with the existing regional conventions, it will give the 2.5 million students who study outside their home region a legal right to have their qualifications assessed for admission to further study or employment in another country.

Strengthening the rights of international students

The draft global convention, which was part of the progress report to UNESCO’s General Conference in November, proposes other rights that are highly relevant for international students as well. First, it establishes the right to have foreign qualifications assessed in a fair, non-discriminatory and transparent manner by national competent authorities.

Second, the draft convention lays the burden of proof on the recognition authorities. Recognition must be given unless the recognising authority can demonstrate a substantial difference between the foreign qualification and qualifications from the country where recognition is sought. In other words, the draft convention moves away from a strict requirement of equivalence, which in many cases makes recognition practically impossible.

Third, the draft convention establishes an obligation to put in place procedures for the recognition of qualifications for individuals with insufficient or unverifiable documentation, including refugees and displaced persons.

A trust-building transparency instrument

Besides establishing these important rights for internationally mobile students, the draft convention also establishes important principles of transparency that are designed to serve as instruments for building trust in foreign qualifications and education systems.

Most importantly, the signatory states must put in place robust and ethical quality assurance systems for higher education institutions. Each state must also provide complete, accurate and updated information on its higher education system and qualifications and give advice on the relevant procedures and criteria for recognition of foreign qualifications.

In sum, a future global convention will improve the rights of internationally mobile students, strengthen interregional academic mobility, contribute to building trust across borders and pave the way for increased global cooperation in higher education.

Stig Arne Skjerven is director of foreign education at the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education or NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC) and president of the ENIC Network – European Network of Information Centres. He was a member of UNESCO’s drafting committee of the Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications. Einar Meier is senior adviser, strategy at NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC).