A milestone for refugee access to higher education

On 19 November a major milestone was reached for the recognition of refugees’ qualifications when ministers of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) concluded the ministerial meeting hosted by Italy by adopting a communiqué welcoming the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees and supporting its use in their systems.

This significant acknowledgement of the results achieved since the Council of Europe project was launched in 2017 is a hopeful move when it comes to refugees and higher education.

The latest UNHCR figures relating to the period before the COVID-19 pandemic show that only 3% of eligible refugees have access to higher education globally, whereas about 63% of all refugee children are enrolled in primary level school and 24% are enrolled at secondary level.

For immigrant job-seekers in Europe, a UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report paper has identified lack of recognition of qualifications as a key obstacle for finding relevant work.

Action to recognise qualifications

Many refugees and migrants arrive in Europe with little or no documentary evidence of their qualifications. For this reason, states party to the Lisbon Recognition Convention have committed, through its Article VII and the 2017 Recommendation on the Recognition of Refugees’ Qualifications, to developing procedures to assess refugees’ qualifications, even when those qualifications cannot be proven through documentary evidence.

As a response to this obligation in the wake of the unprecedented influx of refugees to Europe from 2015 onward, the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees (EQPR) aims to equip refugee qualification holders with an advisory statement on their secondary school leaving certificates and higher education qualifications.

This can open doors to higher education admission and to work opportunities. For example, 57 EQPR holders have obtained places to study in Italy, which has also opened a scholarship scheme to this group.

The EQPR uses a methodology developed by the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education (NOKUT), consisting of an analysis of existing evidence supported by a structured interview.

The project has conducted evaluation sessions in four countries, and 12 countries have so far joined the project. Now, with the European higher education ministers’ endorsement, more countries are expected to join and several countries have already signalled their readiness to implement the EQPR.

Simultaneously, in the spirit of the newly adopted Global Recognition Convention, the UNESCO qualifications passport pilot launched last year in Zambia is expanding to include more countries in Africa and in Latin America and aims to create a global qualifications passport that will allow refugees and migrants to continue education and work across borders and continents.

A commitment to quality

While benefiting more and more refugees in Europe, further development of the EQPR must take due account of the need for quality. Key to the success of the EQPR project is stakeholders having trust in qualification passport statements.

Ultimately, this depends on rigorously following the methodology that has proven reliable and efficient in a wide range of education systems and national contexts and by using experienced and specially trained credential evaluators.

The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to further marginalise refugees and migrants in higher education and in the world of work. Experience so far shows that the EQPR is a simple way of making a difference.

Sjur Bergan is head of the Education Department at the Council of Europe. He has been central in the development of both the Lisbon Recognition Convention and the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees. Marina Malgina is head of interview-based evaluations in NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC). Andreas Snildal is senior adviser for international relations at NOKUT.