Global convention on recognising HE qualifications adopted

The UNESCO General Conference has adopted the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education, which aims to improve student mobility and access to higher education across regions and continents and will be the first United Nations treaty on higher education with a global scope.

It is a landmark decision globally that establishes universal principles for recognition of studies and degrees and will give signatory states an obligation to recognise studies or qualifications from outside of their region.

In line with the global Education 2030 Agenda, the Global Convention also aims to improve the quality of higher education institutions and enhance international cooperation in higher education.

Speaking in advance of the vote, Audrey Azoulay, director general of UNESCO, said: “The Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications will be clear evidence that multilateralism, despite its critics, is the most appropriate system for the interconnected world in which we live.”

The adoption is the culmination of eight years of groundwork and follows on from the development of six regional recognition conventions, including the Lisbon Recognition Convention, the Tokyo Convention for Asia-Pacific and the Addis Convention for Africa.

Underpinning global mobility

It will reduce the obstacles faced by students, teachers, researchers and job seekers outside their countries of origin. Whereas the regional conventions only cover mobility between the countries within those regions, the Global Convention paves the way for the increasing mobility between regions and continents.

There are currently five million students studying abroad. The convention will give the 2.5 million students who study outside of their home region a legal right to have their qualifications assessed for admission to further study or employment in another country.

It also provides other rights for international students, including:

  • • The right to have foreign qualifications assessed in a fair, non-discriminatory and transparent manner by national competent authorities.

  • • Recognition must be given unless the recognising authority can demonstrate a substantial difference between the foreign qualification and qualifications for the country where the recognition is sought.

  • • Procedures must be put in place for the recognition of qualifications for individuals with insufficient or unverifiable documentation, including refugees and displaced persons.

  • • Signatory states are also required to put in place robust and ethical quality assurance systems for higher education institutions.

‘Remarkable achievement’

Stig Arne Skerjven, director of foreign education at Norway’s NOKUT (ENIC-NARIC) and president of the ENIC Bureau, told University World News: “Implemented in coordination with the existing regional conventions, the convention 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. In accordance with the text of the convention, it will enter force after it has been ratified by 20 states.

“In addition, the Global Convention states that refugees and displaced persons have the right to have their qualifications assessed, even when documentary evidence is missing.”

As an element in securing this aspect, UNESCO is piloting the UNESCO Qualifications Passport for Refugees and Vulnerable Migrants, with the assistance of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC), the Council of Europe and the Zambia Qualifications Authority (ZAQA).

Joanna Newman, chief executive and secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, which has more than 500 member institutions in 50 countries, told University World News: “This is really significant. Think of all the regional conventions on recognition of qualifications in place; these allow people and institutions to work together across borders. But the global convention makes things even easier.”

She said it would be of particular value to refugees, for instance, whose qualifications are not necessarily recognised in the region to which they have been displaced.

“It provides a common framework for recognition across all countries. It makes the world a more connected place and builds understanding of and between education systems.”

This includes facilitating understanding of how one system maps against another, so that institutions in other countries can recognise equivalence. “For instance, you can compare a one-year masters in the United Kingdom to a two-year masters in India and see how they match up.”

Globalised standards

Newman said it will rightly help ensure that qualifications are assessed in a fair, balanced non-discriminatory way. “It doesn’t guarantee recognition but provides globalised standards and processes that countries understand and maps out equivalence.”

Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, the largest higher education membership organisation in the United States, told University World News: “While countries will continue to have a powerful influence with regard to their higher education and quality assurance, my sense is that the adoption of the convention is enormously significant.

“Recognition of qualifications across countries and regions remains an enormous challenge. The convention provides additional tools to address the work that needs to be done.”

She acknowledged that ratification by the required number of member states will take some time, but said she believes the convention will immediately influence the framing of qualifications in a number of countries.

“Countries will be using the convention as a foundation to establish expectations of qualifications in the future, either revising what is now in place or comprehensively rethinking their work on qualifications. Additional attention will be placed on the role of qualifications in furthering student mobility.”

Responsibility shifts to recognition authorities

UNESCO explained in a statement that the Global Convention simplifies recognition processes by turning the burden of proof from applicants to recognition authorities.

Where in the past it has been largely up to students to prove why their foreign qualifications should be recognised, it will now be up to recognition authorities to prove why qualifications should not be recognised, if recognition is not granted. Even when recognition is withheld, applicants have the right to appeal.

Furthermore, the general rule is now for recognition authorities to look for similarities with the objective of recognising foreign qualifications, rather than rejecting recognition based on insignificant dissimilarities between foreign and national qualifications, as has often been the case before.

The Global Convention also includes innovative provisions on recognition of prior learning, partial studies, cross-border education and non-traditional learning modes such as online or blended learning.

Normative platform

“The new convention creates a normative platform for fostering trust among higher education systems. It is a landmark opportunity for the world’s academic communities to embrace a common good and a common resolve to forge lifelong higher education learning institutions that are at once relevant, dynamic and inclusive,” UNESCO said in a statement.

“The convention will help ensure the right to education of individuals by facilitating access to higher education.”

Newman said the adoption of the convention was also significant because it recognises the critical role of higher education in cradle to grave education.

Higher education was included in Sustainable Development Goal 4 – the first time it has been included in a United Nations development goal – and “the increased focus on both access and quality means we have to understand how to enable qualifications to be assessed fairly. So I think it is really significant”, she said.

Eaton said the convention could provide a shared foundation for establishing and judging the effectiveness and rigour of a country’s quality assurance work.

It could enable them to assess, for example, whether standards, policies and practices are not only generally similar to what many other countries do, but also similar in application and expectation; or whether there is regional and international respect and confidence in the quality assurance of a country.

“The convention moves commonality forward by providing a more detailed and explicit frame though which the work of various countries may be strengthened and judged,” she said.

This article was corrected on 2 December 2019, to indicate that the European convention developed by UNESCO (jointly with the Council of Europe) was the Lisbon Convention, not the Bologna process as previously referenced.