Academic mobility needs a culture of acceptance to work

At the beginning of 2021, it is difficult to address current challenges to academic mobility without saying the word ‘COVID’. As we have experienced only too vividly, a pandemic or any other kind of disaster – natural or man-made – can bring mobility programmes to a screeching halt.

The broader COVID lesson is that mobility needs to adjust to unforeseen circumstances.

In some cases, that may mean interrupting exchanges and ensuring that foreign students and staff are catered for at and by their host institutions or are helped to return home safely. This also means public authorities need to be flexible, for example, as regards visa extensions or continued financial support.

But beyond the unforeseen, what are the main challenges?

Some are obvious. Academic exchange needs to be financed, we need reliable travel connections and foreign students and staff need support structures in an environment that will be unknown for many and covered in red tape for some. This is an obvious but not trivial point: institutional and national economies, as well as airlines, are likely medium-term casualties of the COVID pandemic. The production of red tape has not diminished.

A welcoming culture

Red tape may be a useful starting point for identifying elements that may be less obvious. Having the structures in place to receive foreign students and staff in their host country and institutions is important. Yet, to make the welcome warm, we need more than structures. We need an atmosphere that makes foreign students and staff feel welcome.

They may hold foreign passports, but they are members of our academic community. Creating a welcoming atmosphere is a challenge for each institution. It is no less a challenge to the broader society which higher education belongs to.

In Europe – but not only in Europe – the recent surge of populism has raised uncomfortable questions about the future of our societies. Populism sees the world as ‘us’ and ‘them’, believes minds should be closed and, in its more extreme forms, sees no need for elections because populists claim to know what most people want.

This presents a formidable challenge for education, and one to which we must rise if we want academic and professional mobility to thrive in 2030 and beyond. Education must help build what the Council of Europe calls a culture of democracy: the set of attitudes and behaviours that enables our institutions, laws and elections to be democratic in practice.

It is a set of attitudes and behaviours that recognises that issues should be considered from several angles, that you may legitimately have views that differ from mine and that I can learn from you. It is emphatically not a laissez-faire approach to values. It cannot legitimise atrocities like genocide or justify questioning the basic humanity of others.

What you know, what you understand and what you are able to do is the classic definition of learning outcomes. This definition misses an important element, however: you may be able to do something you should refrain from doing. This is the ethical dimension of education.

Higher education must provide all its graduates with knowledge, understanding, the ability to act and also the ability to assess when they should refrain from acting.

But it is not only its graduates that need this ethical education: higher education must also work in and with broader society – not least its local community – to help develop the same competences there.

In that way we will have societies that see mobile students, academics and professionals as fellow human beings to be welcomed rather than as foreigners to be kept out – as human resources in the true sense of the term.

What follows from that is a useful consideration of what instruments we should use to make mobility easier.


To use your qualifications in your host country, you need to have them recognised. The Lisbon Recognition Convention was developed by the Council of Europe and UNESCO. It is the legal instrument for the recognition of qualifications in the European Region and has been ratified by 54 countries, Canada among them.

The basic principle of the Lisbon Recognition Convention is straightforward: you should recognise a foreign qualification unless you can demonstrate that there is a substantial difference between this qualification and the corresponding qualifications in your own system. Put differently: recognise the qualification unless you can convincingly show why you should not, and do not be narrow-minded in your search for differences.

The practice, of course, is more complicated, and that is why we have the ENIC Network of national information centres and a Convention Committee where competent recognition authorities can develop a common understanding of what is reasonable practice and what is not.

The Diploma Supplement does not replace the higher education diploma but describes what is in it so that those who are not familiar with a country’s education system can understand what the qualification represents.

Institutions should issue the Diploma Supplement automatically, free of charge and in a widely spoken language. Ministers of the European Higher Education Area promised this would be the case by 2005, and at least we are getting there.

Credits are now widely used in many countries, but not everywhere in the same way. In Europe, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System – the ECTS – was set up to build bridges between different national systems, but has ended up being used as something of a ‘common currency’ so that national education systems now tend to describe their degrees in ECTS credits rather than using national systems.

And national systems are increasingly producing qualifications frameworks. Every one of the 49 members of the European Higher Education Area has committed to developing one and most have kept their commitment or are on their way to doing so.

Qualifications frameworks describe not only individual qualifications, but also how they interlink, how you can move from one degree to another. In Europe, self-certification is the process through which national authorities demonstrate that their framework is compatible with the overarching framework, often called the Bologna Framework.

A self-certified qualifications framework should answer at least three of the questions you will ask when faced with a foreign qualification:

• Is the qualification of sufficient quality?
• What is the workload required?
• What level is the qualification?

You will still need to explore the two other questions you are likely to ask, that is, about the profile of the qualification and its learning outcomes.

Involuntary mobility

If you have to flee your home country, the diploma may not be the first thing you grab, but that does not mean you have lost your qualifications. You have ‘just’ lost the documentation. The European Qualifications Passport for Refugees (EQPR) provides a tested method for assessing and describing qualifications that cannot be adequately documented.

It does so by using whatever documentation the refugee can provide combined with an interview by two credential evaluators from different countries, at least one of whom has specialised knowledge of the education system from which the refugee’s qualifications hail and the language it uses.

Eleven countries now participate in this project and some 530 qualifications passports have been issued. The EQPR can make the difference between a vicious circle, where refugees are put to one side, kept passive, told they are not worth much and eventually lose both their competences and their motivation, and a virtuous circle in which refugees are valued, can use and build on their qualifications and are motivated.

Then they can help their host countries as well as their home countries, if and when they return home.

We started with the principles and have ended with the nitty gritty. The European Qualifications Passport for Refugees brings the two together. Student and professional mobility will require knowledge and understanding of education systems as well as instruments that make mobility easier.

But we will also need a culture of acceptance and welcome – one that extends both to those who want to live in our country because of the opportunities we offer and to those who had to flee their home countries and come as refugees.

Sjur Bergan is head of the Council of Europe’s Education Department and a long-time member of the Bologna Follow-Up Group. This article builds on his presentation to the conference on Sustainable and Inclusive Internationalization organised by York University in Canada on 20-22 January 2021.