Lisbon Recognition Convention moves to North America

On 13 June 2018 Canada deposited its instrument of ratification of the Lisbon Recognition Convention (LRC), and on 1 August it formally became the 54th state party to this convention. But what difference does it make whether the LRC has been ratified by 53 or 54 countries?

In itself, the difference is not enormous, even if every new ratification is eagerly welcomed. The LRC has long been well established as the international standard for the recognition of qualifications in the European region. It is also important to note that the LRC is the only legally binding treaty that is part of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

The LRC was mentioned as early as in the 1998 Sorbonne Declaration – adopted one year after the LRC, at a time when the LRC had not yet entered into force. The importance of all EHEA member states ratifying the LRC was made clear in the 2003 Berlin Communiqué.

The importance of Canada’s ratification is to be found in the concept of the European region. Since the LRC is a joint Council of Europe/UNESCO convention, its scope is that of the European Cultural Convention of the Council of Europe as well as of the UNESCO Europe Region. The latter includes Israel – which is already a party to the LRC – as well as North America.

With Canada, the LRC has for the first time been ratified by a North American country. In the context of international mobility, it is also important that Australia and New Zealand have both ratified the LRC.

Smoothing the path to recognition

This opens interesting perspectives. Many Europeans study in North America and many North Americans undertake studies in Europe. In 2016, official Canadian statistics show that of 264,955 international students who obtained a study permit to undertake academic studies in Canada, 36,855 international students were from LRC signatory states.

In 2017, that number increased to 40,255. The need for smooth recognition of their qualifications is therefore very real. We believe the LRC will help in this respect, even if there is already a solid body of good practice.

The LRC is both a legal text and a guide to good practice. In the former sense, it is limited to the states party to the convention, that is, the countries that have ratified the convention. In the latter sense, it is open to all those interested in drawing inspiration from it. The importance of a North American country now being legally bound by the LRC should not be underestimated.

As we noted in an article in University World News last September, marking the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the LRC, this convention codifies several important developments.

It marks a shift from equivalence to recognition. This is much more than a semantic difference. Those looking for equivalence will undertake a detailed comparison of foreign and national qualifications where even small differences between them can be reasons not to recognise.

Those assessing foreign qualifications with a view to recognition will instead look at learning outcomes and similarities between qualifications in a broader sense. Only where they find substantial differences will they find reasons to withhold recognition or to grant only partial recognition.

Even if many credential evaluators still take too narrow a view of what differences between qualifications can rightly be considered ‘substantial’, the fact that a North American country is now legally bound to the recognition approach is significant.

Like the recognition bodies of other LRC parties, recognition bodies in Canada wanting to withhold recognition will need to demonstrate that the differences between the applicant’s qualification and comparable qualifications in their own systems are such that the applicant will most likely not be able to use the qualifications in the ways he or she envisages.

Active participation

The LRC is overseen by the Lisbon Recognition Convention Committee, on which Canada has so far been an observer. It can now play an active role in the committee, and there is every reason to believe it may do so.

Canada is already a very active member of the ENIC Network of national information centres on recognition. With the corresponding NARIC Network of the European Union, the ENIC Network plays a key role in developing recognition policy and practice in the European region and therefore in implementing the LRC.

For legal and institutional reasons, the ENIC and NARIC Networks are separate, but in reality, they operate as a single network supported by the Council of Europe, UNESCO and the European Commission.

Canada played a pioneering role in establishing the ENIC-NARIC website, which is now the main web portal for information on recognition in Europe and beyond.

The country plays an active role within the networks and even held the presidency and vice-presidency of the ENIC Network from 2004 to 2008 and from 2013 to 2014.

To support information provision within the network, a working group known as ELCORE was established in 1999 following a proposal by Canada at the annual meeting of the ENIC-NARIC Networks. Since 2015, a representative of ENIC Canada has chaired ELCORE.

Not least, Canada is now an active participant in the second phase of the project on the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees, which we described in an article in University World News on 16 March 2018, and which aims to facilitate recognition of refugees’ qualifications even when they cannot be adequately documented.

The Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials (CICIC) plays a vital role in academic mobility in Canada. CICIC is a unit of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada and serves as the Canadian ENIC, Canada’s national information centre to fulfil Canada’s obligations under the LRC.

It is a key resource for students and skilled professionals wishing to settle in or outside Canada as well as for the community of academic credential assessors working for Canadian professional regulatory authorities and associations, education institutions and assessment services.

In 2017 alone, CICIC’s website received close to 720,000 visits and CICIC staff responded to more than 4,600 inquiries.

A thorough process

Canada’s ratification is interesting also because, under the Canadian Constitution, provincial governments have exclusive responsibility for all levels of education. There is no ministry or department of education at the federal level.

There are 13 education systems, one for each of Canada’s 10 provinces and three territories. National cooperation is ensured through the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, an intergovernmental body that provides leadership in education at the national and international levels, of which all 13 provinces and territories are members.

Canada is not the first country with such a structure to ratify the convention; European examples include Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany and Switzerland. Nevertheless, Canada’s ratification process required that each province and territory acquiesce in the ratification through their respective legislative assemblies, followed by tabling in Canada’s House of Commons.

The process may have been a lengthy one, but it should indicate that the provinces and territories are now fully committed to supporting the implementation of the LRC with assessment services and competent recognition bodies in Canada.

The fact that Canada has ratified the LRC may raise new questions about a possible ratification by the United States, which has signed but not ratified the LRC. An immediate US ratification by the current administration is unlikely, however. It would probably require a change of attitudes to international cooperation, the United Nations and the importance of international treaties.

Nevertheless, Canada’s example could be important to the United States if and when the political environment in the US changes.

In this sense, Canada’s ratification also helps support UNESCO’s work on a Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications that will complement rather than supplant the regional conventions. The work on the global convention is ongoing and the plan is to send a final draft to UNESCO’s General Conference for adoption in November 2019.

Towards an international recognition policy

To sum up, Canada’s ratification of the LRC is not just another instrument of ratification deposited and another box ticked. Through its thorough and ultimately successful ratification process, Canada has made the LRC a legally binding text and not just a guide to good practice in a part of North America.

It has strengthened the role of the LRC in the global context. It has demonstrated that a federation with a complex ratification process can ratify treaties on education. In addition, it has helped strengthen UNESCO’s work on the global convention.

Hopefully, Canada has also established a precedent for US ratification when the time is ripe. Not least, Canada’s ratification builds on a solid record of contributing to the development of international recognition policy and practice.

We would like to pay tribute to three successive heads of the Canadian ENIC, who have all played important roles internationally and who have all supported procedures to reach ratification: Yves Beaudin, Natasha Sawh and the current head, Michael Ringuette. Their work will now come to fruition in the context of the LRC.

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/EHEA and the Lisbon Recognition Convention. Stig Arne Skjerven is director of foreign education in NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC). He is the current president of the ENIC Network and was a member of the drafting committee of UNESCO’s global recognition convention.