Global recognition convention set for adoption this year

Work on setting up a global recognition convention has been under way for some years, and it is now clear that the first Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications will be adopted at the 40th Session of the General Conference of UNESCO in November 2019.

Almost two years ago, in November 2017, the 39th Session of the General Conference of UNESCO drew up a timeline for the adoption of the world’s first global convention on academic mobility. Since then, discussions on the draft text of a new convention have taken place between UNESCO member states.

At the second intergovernmental meeting earlier this year, more than 120 member states participated in intense negotiations over five days at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris.

After the convention text has been adopted during the UNESCO General Conference in November, the process of ratification by member states can begin. The global convention will enter into force when 20 states have ratified it. How long this will take is hard to predict, but based on the strong commitment signalled by many countries so far in the process, we believe this is realistic as early as 2021 or 2022.

Impact for international student mobility

The authors wrote an article for University World News in 2017 describing the potential impact a new convention could have for global academic mobility.

Over the past generation, there has been an explosion in international student mobility worldwide. According to the OECD, the number of international students in higher education rose from 0.8 million in the late 1970s to 4.6 million in 2015.

This increase has been accompanied by a growth in interregional student mobility, with 2.5 million international students studying in a country outside their region of origin, according to UNESCO’s preliminary report on a potential global convention.

A prerequisite for further growth in international student mobility is better comparability across education systems and transferability of degrees and qualifications.

Even though some students study abroad as the first step in a process that leads to permanent migration, a large majority of internationally mobile students eventually return home, or end up working in a third country.

Some of them might end up working in a field where the fact that they have studied at a well-known international university is enough, but many will need formal recognition of their foreign qualifications before they can apply for further studies or work.

For these students’ investments of time and money in an international education to pay off, they must be confident that the qualification they have obtained abroad can be recognised in another country, including their home country.

Currently, there is no legal obligation for countries to recognise education from outside their own region, which, for example, means that Lebanese students do not have a legal right to have their Australian education assessed for recognition on returning home.

The new global recognition convention will take major steps towards improving the situation. It will establish the right to have foreign qualifications assessed in a fair, non-discriminatory and transparent manner by national competent authorities.

Moving away from a strict requirement of equivalence, the convention will also establish a principle that recognition must be given unless the recognising authority can demonstrate a substantial difference between the foreign qualification and qualifications from the country where recognition is sought.

Finally, the convention establishes an obligation to put in place procedures for the recognition of qualifications for refugees and displaced persons.

Regional recognition conventions and the global convention

Rather than replacing existing regional mechanisms of recognition, the new global recognition convention aims to strengthen and support the good practices that have been established.

Regional conventions, building on similar principles as the global convention, are already in place for the European region (Lisbon Recognition Convention), the Asia-Pacific region (Tokyo Convention) and Africa (Addis Ababa Convention).

It is also worth noting that regional conventions for the Latin American and the Caribbean Region and the Arab Region are close to being finalised.

However, since these are regional conventions, none of them give the countries that have ratified the conventions an obligation to recognise studies or qualifications from outside their own region.

The new convention will be the first normative instrument of recognition with a global scope. Implemented in coordination with the existing regional conventions, it will give the 2.5 million students who study outside their home region a legal right to have their qualifications assessed for admission to further study or employment in another country. This will be quite a remarkable achievement.

Stig Arne Skjerven is director of foreign education at the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education or NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC) and president of the ENIC Network – European Network of Information Centres. He was a member of UNESCO’s drafting committee of the Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications. Einar Meier is senior strategy adviser at NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC).