Towards global recognition of HE qualifications

With the 2011 Tokyo Recognition Convention coming into force in February 2019 and having its inaugural recognition committee meeting this coming October in Seoul, the Asia-Pacific region is due for a re-energised effort to enhance access, mobility and quality in higher education.

The renewed push for qualifications recognition in the Asia-Pacific will be reinforced by ongoing initiatives to develop guidelines to strengthen qualifications frameworks in the Asia-Pacific and to work towards a Global Recognition Convention.

Taking account of the current higher education context and trends, including the massification, diversification, internationalisation and regionalisation of higher education, the Tokyo convention is a revised international instrument that reinforces the urgent need to enhance access, quality and international mobility in Asia-Pacific higher education.

It has established comprehensive and structured guidelines that streamline and harmonise recognition of higher education qualifications in Asia-Pacific higher education, including those of disadvantaged persons, without discrimination.

Furthermore, it is open to all UNESCO member states and the Holy See, in contrast to the original Asia-Pacific Recognition Convention, which is only open to UNESCO Asia-Pacific member states.

Higher education access, quality and mobility

The 46 Asia-Pacific UNESCO member states account for roughly 60% of the world’s population. This means that increasing access to and quality and mobility of higher education in the Asia-Pacific region represents a significant contribution to the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, of which education is a cross-cutting goal.

In fact, the Asia-Pacific region sent approximately 41.37% (1,654,681) and hosted 24.51% (980,247) of the total number of the internationally mobile student population based on 2012 figures.

The inclusion of disadvantaged people (including refugees, forcibly displaced and-or stateless persons), partial studies and non-traditional higher education qualifications in the Tokyo Recognition Convention enhances access to higher education beyond what was possible in the original 1983 Asia-Pacific Recognition Convention.

Granting recognition unless there are substantial identifiable differences is a marked shift in favour of applicants. The convention’s transparent, coherent and reliable procedures further enhance access to higher education.

The increased focus on the relationship between quality assurance, mobility and recognition, information sharing and networking at expert level and the development of codes of good practices, recommendations and guidelines enhance collaboration and the quality of higher education among signatories to the Tokyo convention.

These are complemented by the convention’s focus on international mobility’s peace-building role and the inclusion of various tools such as the UNESCO diploma supplement, the UNESCO/OECD Guidelines for Quality Provision in Cross-Border Higher Education and ‘national information centres’.

In fact, the UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education is finalising the guideline for ‘developing and strengthening qualifications frameworks’ in Asia-Pacific.

The above-mentioned elements of the Tokyo convention represent a comprehensive, transparent and equitable approach to facilitating the international mobility of students and academics while supporting UNESCO’s peace-building mission in challenging times.

The important role of national information centres

According to the convention, the ratifying states shall enable the development and maintenance of a national information centre that will provide information on higher education. The form the national information centres take can vary.

More than 20 years of experience with the Lisbon Recognition Convention, which has been ratified by 54 countries in the European Cultural Convention/UNESCO Europe Region, shows the impact such a network can have on recognition and mobility.

In Europe, the ENIC-NARIC Network has become a key player in facilitating fair and transparent recognition through the sharing of information and best practices and through joint projects. In time, one may expect the same from an Asia-Pacific network. Moreover, close interaction and information provision between these networks have the potential to benefit both regions.

The Global Recognition Convention

With three of the six regional recognition conventions revised to date, efforts to revise the remaining regional recognition conventions and to develop a Global Recognition Convention are currently ongoing.

In fact, the Global Recognition Convention has already been drafted and is currently scheduled for consultation to gain input for further revision prior to being presented for adoption in the next UNESCO General Conference in November 2019.

The various regional recognition conventions, including the Tokyo Recognition Convention, do not only complement, but support, the Global Recognition Convention. The Global Recognition Convention is drafted with the same principles of accountability, equity and transparency. It takes into account the role of the various regional recognition conventions in facilitating regional and inter-regional student and academic mobility.

As such, the coming into force of the Tokyo convention, and its eventual implementation and increase in signatories, is one of the foundations that may facilitate recognition of higher education qualifications and international mobility within and beyond the Asia-Pacific region.

In fact, the Global Recognition Convention consolidates various international initiatives in higher education, including the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees by the Council of Europe, into one international convention.

Towards a borderless Asia-Pacific higher education

Although the Tokyo convention will soon come into force, only five UNESCO member states (Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea) and the Holy See have ratified it. The ratification of the convention needs to be promoted beyond the developed countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

In order to enhance the effective implementation of the Tokyo Recognition Convention, it is essential to set up the necessary infrastructure, including national information centres and a network of these. The centres will enhance information sharing (including data gathering and sharing and monitoring), networking and national and regional collaboration in recognition, quality assurance and mobility.

Furthermore, it will be important to develop, institutionalise and monitor the implementation of national qualifications frameworks and to enhance transparency and accountability in national and regional quality assurance procedures and agencies or institutions.

Increasing awareness and understanding of the Tokyo convention and its implementation beyond national governments, especially in the various agencies responsible for international recognition and higher education institutions, are a necessity.

As such, establishing a borderless Asia-Pacific higher education is still a work in progress. However, when the Tokyo Recognition Convention comes into force, it has the potential to become a milestone on the way to a borderless Asia-Pacific Higher Education Area.

In fact, there are various reasons for UNESCO Asia-Pacific member states to ratify the Tokyo convention. These reasons cut across economic and demographic interests. Most importantly, it can enhance the inter-cultural awareness and understanding that supports the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular SDG4 ‘Quality Education’, and help facilitate regional and global peace-building and sustainable development at national, regional and global levels.

As the world faces multiple challenges, the Tokyo convention offers a light at the end of the tunnel to re-energise efforts to facilitate access, quality and mobility in Asia-Pacific higher education. Therefore, one can argue, there are many ways in which the Tokyo convention is a valuable legacy for the future, regardless of people’s socio-economic status, religion, ethnicity and other differences.

Dr Roger Y Chao Jr is an independent education development consultant. He was formerly the senior consultant and higher education specialist for the UNESCO International Centre for Higher Education Innovation and UNESCO Myanmar respectively. He has been engaged with various higher education-related projects with UNESCO and is an expert in higher education for the European Commission. Stig Arne Skjerven is director of foreign education in NOKUT and president of the ENIC Bureau in the European Network of Information Centres.