Tokyo Convention parties want online learning recognised

In a special statement on COVID-19 issued on 11 November, the parties to the Tokyo Convention on the recognition of qualifications in the Asia-Pacific have called for “fair and transparent recognition” of studies and qualifications, including a push to recognise qualifications “obtained through non-traditional learning and partial studies” in order to avoid further disruption to education and student mobility.

The convention “will help minimise further disruption to all students and graduates through fair and transparent recognition of studies and qualifications”, it said.

The Tokyo Convention, under the aegis of UNESCO, which came into force in February 2018, lays down basic principles for recognition of higher education qualifications to facilitate cross-border mobility of students, academics and professionals within the region.

It includes the granting of qualification recognition unless there are “substantial differences” in the national qualifications regime.

The special statement on COVID-19 responds to huge disruption over long periods in many countries as schools and universities were closed and classes moved to online and distance learning modes with varying degrees of success.

According to the statement, the parties to the convention commit to “fully respecting all domestic settings and systems in place, and the autonomy of its decision-makers while protecting the rights of an individual to have their studies and qualifications recognised and-or assessed fairly and transparently, including those using non-traditional modes such as online and bended learning”.

“These issues are highly relevant given the massive global shift to online learning and the need to provide information about quality assurance arrangements,” the statement said.

“The Tokyo Convention is particularly relevant to deal with the challenges of COVID-19 as online and blended learning has become the new normal. But the problem is that qualifications obtained through non-traditional modes were not that clear in the past,” said Libing Wang, chief of educational innovations and skills development at the UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok.

“It is a recognition that online and blended learning should be the way forward,” Wang told University World News. In the text of the original convention, “online and blended learning is not clearly mentioned. But now it’s quite clear.”

According to UNESCO, more than 752 million learners in the Asia-Pacific have been affected by the pandemic, or more than 85% of the total student population in the region. An estimated 40% of low- and lower middle-income countries have been unable to support vulnerable learners at risk of exclusion during the COVID-19 crisis, with implications for higher education access.

Wang said the post-COVID-19 “new normal” requires diversity of higher education provision, “as long as learning outcomes are comparable with each other, modalities of delivery and the ways into achieving learning outcomes should be flexible”.

But he acknowledged that many national qualification recognition authorities were concerned about “substantial difference” in online and blended learning. “So we need to advocate the importance of developing frameworks recognising online learning,” he said.

Different approaches to non-traditional learning

This could be complex as different countries have very different approaches to online and blended learning and how they fit into a qualifications framework currently designed for more traditional qualifications.

Jane Azurin, head of Australia’s National Information Centre, under the Australian government’s Department of Education, Skills and Employment, said: “COVID-19 has catalysed global uptake of online learning; however, approaches to the delivery and recognition of online learning are diverse.”

The current crisis “is driving the development of new, innovative and more diverse modes of learning,” she said, adding that the statement “conveys that Tokyo Convention parties are focusing on understanding approaches to recognising qualifications, including online learning”.

Azurin said: “In Australia, online and other forms of transnational learning are already commonplace and quality assured on par with traditional face-to-face modes.”

The situation is very different in Japan where higher education institutions themselves make the decision on overseas qualification recognition.

Taiji Hotta, a professor at Hiroshima University’s Morito Institute of Global Higher Education and executive director of the National Information Center for Academic Recognition Japan (NIC-Japan), said universities in the country were very conservative.

“They simply do not recognise blended or online education, especially if it comes from overseas. This is the first barrier that we in NIC-Japan have to overcome – we need to inform accurately about the value of educational experiences.”

But he said the Tokyo Convention statement could be a “trigger for Japanese higher education institutions to move or change”.

The COVID-19 pandemic had meant a dramatic change for Japanese universities, with many of them offering online education since March. “Around 80% of these are blended learning,” Hotta said.

“We believe we can increase the capacity for recognition by providing information including on non-traditional learning, especially for vocational qualifications,” he said. Many of these include practical courses and non-traditional assessments.

National information centres

One of the requirements of the Tokyo Convention is that each country needs to develop a national information centre or NIC to provide qualitative information on higher education and the quality assurance system to facilitate people moving from country to country.

Setting up an NIC, in practice, means that “if an overseas government agency, admissions officer or employer is faced with a qualification that is unfamiliar to them, there is a designated body they can approach which can provide timely information to help understand the qualification, to ensure the resulting decision is an informed one,” Azurin explained.

“These decisions can ultimately make the difference between an individual being admitted to study or being employed, which can have major implications for an individual’s life. The benefit of the Tokyo Convention is that its basic principles, those of fair and transparent recognition, can be applied to any type of learning, including informal learning,” she said.

This could be particularly relevant for online learning and blended learning as they facilitate discussions between national systems of recognition.

The APPNIC portal

The 11 November statement emphasises that the Tokyo Convention will help minimise further disruption to students and graduates with the provision of authoritative information through the Asia-Pacific Network of National Information Centres (APNNIC) network set up in 2019.

The current Tokyo Convention signatories are Australia, China, Japan, Mongolia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Turkey and the Holy See. Fiji joined in August 2020. They will officially launch the (APNNIC) portal on 18 November.

“It will be an important portal, not only for the parties [to the convention], but also for students, higher education institutions and other stakeholders to get real information,” Fatma Özturk, head of the ENIC-NARIC Turkey office and APPNIC Turkey office under Turkey’s Council of Higher Education (YÖK), said.

Turkey’s NIC “will inform people how to make applications regarding these non-traditional credentials and we will show them the way to have their learning accepted by the authorities, for example for admission to higher education. We have cases in Turkey on this and can share good practice with other parties”, she said.

“In one way or another every country has these credentials; some define them very well,” but Özturk added that there was a lot of confusion over how they should be recognised.

“There is confusion about what distance learning and what open learning is and in some countries that causes problems. In some countries open learning, distance learning, formal and non-formal learning are recognised. In other countries some of them are recognised, some are not,” she said.

“In Turkey we recognise distance learning, but it passes through a recognition process and we also had an online recognition process three years ago before there was any COVID.”

While the APNNIC network is currently limited to the nine member countries, or just a fifth of current UNESCO Asia-Pacific region member countries, “with every new member of the convention, the APNNIC network will extend itself and will be stronger, more effective and useful for different stakeholders in higher education,” she said.

“Distance and open learning will be playing a very important role in providing continuous education and the countries that use information and media technologies effectively will be the leading ones in this sector,” Özturk said. “APNNIC can be considered as one of the tools, used as a reference for getting adequate and reliable information on different education systems.”

New forms of education

The COVID-19 statement looks beyond the current pandemic. It also said parties to the convention commit to “advancing a deeper understanding of the diversity of qualifications, education and training systems, and qualifications recognition systems” fit for the COVID-19 context and the digital age.

It notes that the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education’s future focus highlights “new and innovative forms of education to better support 21st-century global citizens and build the resilience of education systems worldwide”.

“We need to develop a very supportive ecosystem to deal with disruption in higher education, but most fundamental is the infrastructure of the internet and connectivity, but also academic infrastructure should be ready which includes a qualification framework, subject level benchmark statements, programme specifications, and so on,” noted Wang.

Others noted that systems, including quality assurance systems, need to be prepared for the future so that gaps in recognition during disruption don’t happen again

The convention “needs to bring about a system change that is now urgent”, said Wesley Teter, a senior consultant to UNESCO Bangkok.

“Different types of learning need to be quality assured and recognised in a fair and transparent way; it’s not just about sitting in classrooms but about learning outcomes and how we fairly assess them.”

For a long time “we’ve been talking about fair recognition of non-traditional modes and this is bringing that to fruition. This statement is making it all the more timely and all the more important,” Teter said.