UN convention on degree recognition comes into force

A UN regional convention on the recognition of higher education qualifications in the Asia Pacific comes into force on 1 February 2018 after the five founding countries – Australia, South Korea, China, Japan and New Zealand – deposited their instruments of ratification with UNESCO, according to the UN agency’s Asia bureau in Bangkok.

The Asia-Pacific Regional Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education, also known as the revised 2011 Tokyo Convention, lays down basic principles for recognition of higher education qualifications, including increased information and transparency, in order to smooth cross-border mobility of students, academics and professionals within the region.

It includes principles such as granting qualification recognition unless there are “substantial differences” in the qualifications regime, fairly assessing qualifications from non-traditional modes of education, making parties responsible for providing information about their education system and quality assurance schemes, and sets out provisions for recognising the qualifications of refugees.

“This legal instrument is the foundation for promoting fair and transparent practices in cross-border mobility and recognition across formal and non-formal learning in Asia and the Pacific,” said Libing Wang, head of UNESCO Bangkok’s Section for Educational Innovation and Skills Development.

The revised Tokyo Convention required five countries to ratify it in order to come into force. Other countries in the region have signalled that they are in advanced stages of the ratification, UNESCO said.

Changes in HE landscape

The regional convention was first drafted in 2011 to replace the 1983 Bangkok Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Diplomas and Degrees in Higher Education in Asia and the Pacific.

“There have been a lot of global changes in higher education since the 1983 convention, such as massification of higher education, the growth of private higher education providers, cross-border higher education, ICT and qualifications via open and distance learning,” says Ethel Valenzuela, deputy director of programmes and development at the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation secretariat in Bangkok, who has been involved in the redrafting of the convention.

“Some courses and qualifications are offered on the internet without even the approval of ministers of education,” she says. “In particular, we address issues of how we go about recognising non-traditional higher education, partial studies, and the qualifications of refugees and people in refugee-like situations. This has been improved in the new convention.”

The convention “will provide a framework for validating and authenticating higher education qualifications, including the exchange of documents between member states and access to a regional database which will codify manuals for course units and credits to facilitate recognition of higher education qualifications”, she says.

“What is special about the Tokyo Convention is that these are the fundamentals that everyone in the region agrees on and wants to be bound by, of what constitutes fairness and what constitutes transparency in evaluating credentials,” Valenzuela says.

Other bilateral and university networks will continue to function alongside. “They will be able to take the principles of the Tokyo Convention into account as they continue to revise their rules and regulations, including how that might impact their other agreements within ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations].”

Network of information centres

An Asia-Pacific network of national information centres on higher education will be set up under the convention with UNESCO’s Bangkok bureau serving as secretariat.

“That will be the most useful for students, universities and for getting basic information about higher education qualifications in the Asia-Pacific region. That wasn’t the case before. We have not had a functioning network of national information centres yet,” says Wesley Teter, a senior consultant for UNESCO’s Section for Educational Innovation and Skills Development in Bangkok.

Only a third of Asia-Pacific countries have a national information centre on qualifications, according to a survey conducted as the convention was being redrafted. “Some ministries or departments of education have information but need to put it in a manner that is understandable for all member states. We give them the ingredients to do this,” Valenzuela says.

Some information held by ministries is only in the local language. The network will facilitate regional information sharing in English.

“Once the competent qualification recognition authorities have been set up and have fully met the requirements and have the right information, they will link together across the region,” Valenzuela says, adding that the network’s information sharing platform was expected to be set up by the end of the year.

“They will come together every two years and share recent information. This will limit the expansion of non-recognised and bogus qualifications,” she says.

UNESCO and South Korea will host the first meeting under the Tokyo Convention in late 2018. It will enable member states to “plan for the future of the world’s most dynamic and fastest-growing region in terms of the numbers of inbound and outbound international students”, Teter says.

UNESCO is separately drawing up a new global convention on recognition of higher education qualifications, which is expected to be formally adopted at UNESCO’s general conference in November 2019.

Note that this article has been altered since first publication to change the date when the regional convention on the recognition of higher education qualifications in the Asia Pacific comes into force to 1 February 2018.