How to get to automatic recognition of qualifications

Mutual recognition of foreign diplomas is of great importance if we want to promote student mobility across Europe. This is underlined by the ambitions for improving recognition as part of the new plans for the European Education Area. Automatic recognition takes mutual recognition a step further. When it is fully implemented, a bachelor or masters degree obtained in one country will be automatically accepted as a bachelor or masters degree in another country.

From pathfinder to four pathways

After the Yerevan Communiqué, a Pathfinder Group on Automatic Recognition was established to offer guidance on the implementation of automatic recognition. Together with partners from other European recognition centres (ENIC-NARICs), Nuffic has built on this work and investigated how automatic recognition can be achieved.

The findings are presented in a policy paper, A Short Path to Automatic Recognition: 4 models. The publication offers an analysis of four models currently used in the European region for the implementation of automatic recognition. A distinction can be made between models that rely on legally binding arrangements and models that prefer a softer approach.

Legal bilateral and multilateral agreements

The first model concerns legal bilateral and multilateral agreements. Prior to the Yerevan Communiqué, legally binding agreements on the automatic recognition of qualifications were already in use. This was especially the case for neighbouring countries, which took the initiative to come to formal agreements on the automatic recognition of each other's qualifications.

There are a number of bi- and multilateral agreements within all regions of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). An example is the Benelux Decision on the mutual recognition of higher education qualifications.

Legal agreements provide a strong and sound basis for transparent and fast decision-making. They should be considered the ‘deluxe’ option, given that coming to an agreement is a time- and resource-intensive process. This is also the reason these agreements are currently limited to a few countries.

Legally binding list of degrees

Another model of a legally binding character is automatic recognition based on a list of approved countries. This model is not based on bi- or multilateral agreements as countries can decide unilaterally which qualifications from which countries to include. An example is Portugal, where a country list was introduced in 2007.

While the scope of a list is also limited to a select number of countries, this model offers a transparent and simple procedure for fast and fair recognition of qualifications. It does require investment in compiling the list and keeping it up to date. Further, the legal nature of it makes it less flexible to change, such as including new qualifications.

Non-legal agreements

The third option is to come to ‘soft’ (non-legal) agreements between countries based on mutual recognition of each other’s qualifications. The Pathfinder Group on Automatic Recognition recommended this type of regional cooperation as a stepping stone towards the final achievement of automatic recognition within the EHEA.

In response to this recommendation, the Nordic-Baltic countries jointly developed an admission manual with the purpose of creating a transparency and recognition tool for admissions officers. The manual offers information about the different education systems and includes a table showing which national qualifications are comparable in level. Applicants who hold the qualifications mentioned in the table should be eligible for access to programmes at the next level within the region.

‘De facto’ automatic recognition

The fourth and last option for automatic recognition of qualifications is ‘de facto’ automatic recognition. When making an inventory of current practices on automatic recognition, it became apparent that many EHEA countries already ‘automatically’ accept bachelor and masters qualifications from quality-assured comparable degrees in other EHEA countries. They do so without referring to formal procedures or agreements on automatic recognition.

However, to apply for de facto automatic recognition, countries should fulfil a minimum set of requirements. The first is implementation of the Lisbon Recognition Convention, which is the legal framework for mutual recognition of qualifications in the EHEA. This is an important precondition for de facto automatic recognition, as is the presence of a quality assurance system that is based on the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area.

The introduction of the three-cycle system of higher education – undergraduate, graduate and doctoral studies – and the presence of a national qualifications framework that is referenced to the European Qualifications Framework and-or the EHEA Framework is also necessary.

Achieving automatic recognition

In light of the 2020 deadline, there is little time to waste in making sure automatic recognition is applied by all countries in the EHEA. While legal agreements provide a strong basis for fast and fair decision-making, they are the most difficult to implement.

‘Soft’ approaches may in some cases leave room for ambiguity, but are easier to achieve and have the same outcome for the majority of decisions. They also allow for flexibility to respond to ongoing developments in higher education. Moreover, they may be a first step towards a legal foundation.

Regardless of the model chosen, transparency is key. The procedures and criteria used for automatic recognition of foreign qualifications should at all times be clear to all stakeholders.

Countries that want to give automatic recognition an impetus should carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each model. They may also decide to simultaneously apply different approaches, as is done in the Netherlands, which has a multilateral agreement with Belgium and Luxembourg and applies de facto automatic recognition to most other EHEA countries.

When countries are able to be flexible to choose a strategy that is fit for purpose, it is likely that automatic recognition can be achieved in a large part of the EHEA by 2020.

Katrien Bardoel and Jenneke Lokhoff are senior policy advisers in Nuffic's international recognition department. Lokhoff is also a member of the NARIC advisory board.