Nordic path to automatic recognition of qualifications

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Lisbon Recognition Convention, which has had a major impact on mobility in the European Higher Education Area.

Through the Bologna Process, progress has been made in enabling students and graduates to move within the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA, with arrangements for recognition of their qualifications and periods of study abroad. Still, there are many obstacles to academic mobility, even when qualifications are comparable.

The 2015 Yerevan Communique addressed this issue, with a clear ambition that by 2020 qualifications from other countries in the EHEA should be recognised automatically at the same level as relevant domestic qualifications. However, this has been difficult to achieve in practice. Partly, this is a result of asymmetric implementation of the Bologna reforms in the countries in the EHEA.

Frustration with the lack of progress may be behind the European Commission’s recent announcement of the Sorbonne Process, which will prepare the ground for an upcoming commission proposal on mutual recognition of higher education and school leaving diplomas, as well as cross-border validation of training and lifelong learning certificates.

There are, however, developments already under way within the EHEA.

In November 2016, the education ministers of the Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – signed the Nordic Declaration on the Recognition of Qualifications Concerning Higher Education, which also goes under the name of the Revised Reykjavik Declaration.

An international conference in October 2017, organised by the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research and NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC), laid the foundations for achieving the ambitious goals set out in the declaration.

The Revised Reykjavik Declaration

The Nordic countries have cooperated closely for many years in education and research and have long-standing agreements that give Nordic applicants access to schools and higher education on the same terms as domestic applicants.

Through the Nordic recognition network NORRIC, there has also been considerable cooperation between the Nordic ENIC-NARIC recognition offices, which has improved the quality and efficiency of recognition practices in the region.

Building on existing collaboration and high levels of mutual trust, the Nordic education ministers set out a clear ambition for the Nordic region to position itself as a pioneer in the field of automatic recognition of qualifications in the Revised Reykjavik Declaration.

Work has started to realise the aims of mutual recognition of higher education qualifications from the Nordic countries, stronger administrative and methodological co-operation and future adoption of systems for automatic recognition.

Several projects are under way to explore the path towards automatic recognition. The Nordic-Baltic Admission Manual aims to give admission officers at higher education institutions a better understanding of the qualifications available in the Nordic and Baltic Region in order to provide a basis for smoother and more automatic recognition.

In Norway, the ORION project aims to introduce principles of automatic recognition into the national regulation, moving from an input-oriented approach to recognition to an output-centred approach that focuses on recognition of the learning outcomes of qualifications. In this project, the input from external experts from other Nordic countries is crucial.

Closer cooperation is also sought through the NORRIC network, in terms of both regular information exchange and the many ongoing activities in various working groups and expert seminars on a range of topics. Over recent years a number of workshops have been held on themes such as educational systems and qualifications and working methodologies.

The recognition of qualifications held by refugees with unverifiable documentation, in particular from Syria, has been an area of particularly close cooperation.

The Reykjavik Declaration also gives the national recognition bodies a platform for close dialogue on new developments in the field that require special attention. An example of such a new development affecting the field of recognition is the possibilities inherent in digitalisation.

Of course, we need to move to digital application and case processing systems and these processes are already well under way. However, the goal of digital student data portability set out in the Groningen Declaration points towards a greatly simplified future for access to documentation and easier verification of both qualifications and recognition decisions.

This is being explored in the Nordic-led EMREX Project, which already offers a viable solution for electronic transfer of student records.

The comparative advantages of the Nordic region

The Nordic recognition offices are differently organised and they all offer superficially similar-looking but ultimately different types of recognition and advisory services to the public. This is because each office has evolved in its own specific national legal and cultural context, resulting in a different mix of services in each country.

Even though there are differences among the Nordic signatories to the Reykjavik Declaration, there is also a high degree of similarity, cultural affinity, mutual understanding and trust between the countries.

The Nordic cooperation in the field of recognition has proven to be important and might become a role model for other regions in Europe. With the clear political commitments at a ministerial level to follow up on the ambitions of the Revised Reykjavik Declaration, there is momentum to advance mutual recognition for the benefit of smoother and more effective academic mobility in the Nordic region.

Stig Arne Skjerven is director of foreign education in NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC) and president of the ENIC Network – European Network of Information Centres.