Higher education needs to develop better crisis responses

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that no education system is resilient to crisis.

And even if the digital revolution has transformed the higher education system more profoundly than anything else in the past decades, the pandemic has been no less hard-hitting. Its economic impact alone could force up to seven million students to drop out. International students have been stranded. In every country, students are struggling with access to remote learning, social isolation and economic strife.

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified fragilities and inequalities across digital, gender, social and educational lines, especially in regions already affected by conflict.

Universities and faculty have invested tremendous efforts in finding and proposing new and innovative teaching and learning modes. But one year after the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, the higher education sector is still struggling to provide alternative teaching, as well as with issues related to student mobility, admissions, recognition of foreign qualifications and quality assurance.

Often, university administrations find themselves in uncharted territory – on how to enrol students who have not yet obtained their secondary school leaving certificates because exams have been cancelled or how to recognise qualifications obtained through alternative provision.

Many higher education systems do not accept such qualifications, and authorities and universities are rightly concerned with the quality of qualifications exclusively obtained through online provision.

Need for multilateralism

The internationalisation of higher education is a deep trend. Only reinforced global cooperation will help us to build back in a more resilient and equitable way.

There are tools in place to facilitate this. The UNESCO Global Convention, adopted in November 2019, has provisions on the recognition of non-traditional learning modes, such as online and blended learning, and requires countries joining the treaty to set up quality assurance mechanisms for such provision.

Recognition and quality assurance of online learning preoccupies developed and developing countries alike, and global efforts are needed to put in place sound solutions to these common challenges.

UNESCO’s newly published Practical Guide to Recognition: Implementing the global convention on the recognition of qualifications concerning higher education offers practical advice for universities, qualifications authorities and policy-makers, in accordance with the convention’s principles of the fair, transparent and non-discriminatory recognition of foreign qualifications.

The regional level is just as important. Here, also, countries are joining forces to respond to challenges emerging from the pandemic, such as recognition of disrupted learning.

The committees of the Lisbon Recognition Convention and the Tokyo Recognition Convention have, respectively, issued a reflection document and a statement on confronting COVID-19 by strengthening cooperation in qualifications recognition in the Asia-Pacific and beyond.

Both call for better information sharing on remote learning and teaching provision, as well as on quality assurance arrangements for the recognition of qualifications and study periods under such modalities.

Lessons to learn from the refugee crisis

The recognition of qualifications has been an intensive exercise in international diplomacy.

Ultimately, the aim is to make higher education more accessible and inclusive for all – including in the context of emergencies and migration. Only 3% of refugees are enrolled in higher education institutions worldwide, which also deprives host countries of valuable talent.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR recently articulated the aim to increase this figure to 15% by 2030. The increasing importance attributed to refugees’ access to higher education also implies greater awareness of the socio-economic contributions displaced populations can offer to host communities as well as to the rebuilding of their home communities.

This was the reasoning behind the qualifications passport for refugees initiative when it was launched in Norway in 2015. The idea was to equip refugees who were not able to provide documentary evidence on their qualifications with an advisory statement on their educational background and language skills.

The qualifications passport is based on 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.

Since then, the methodology has been extended to the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees initiative endorsed by the Rome ministerial conference of the European Higher Education Area – and most recently the UNESCO Qualifications Passport for Refugees and Vulnerable Migrants.

After the successful first pilot in Zambia, more countries, including Iraq, India, South Africa, Brazil and Morocco, are being included in the pilot conversation, aiming at creating a global mobility tool for crisis-affected people on the move all over the world.

This concrete tool is a positive step forward, not only for refugees and migrants lacking documentary evidence of their qualifications, but for improving the capacity of higher education to respond to crisis situations and to promote social integration. This is integral to strengthening resilience and advancing inclusion for all learners.

Higher education problems need higher education solutions

The societal mission of higher education has never been more important as part of a strategy for charting a more just, inclusive and sustainable course. Partnerships and global cooperation are the only way to expand online provision, address quality assurance issues, support student mobility and increase access to knowledge and educational resources.

This October, UNESCO is convening the Third World Conference on Higher Education: Reinventing the role and place of higher learning for a sustainable future (WCHE III) in Barcelona. The event is expected to set the course for higher education in the coming decade, starting with strengthening resilience to future crises so that the world is better positioned to ensure that learning never stops.

Stefania Giannini is assistant director-general for education at UNESCO. Kristin Vinje is chief executive of the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education (NOKUT).