Opening up education opportunities for refugee scholars

In 2017 the Council of Europe launched the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees (EQPR) through a pilot project involving four countries as well as the UNHCR. The current phase of the project encompasses 11 countries, started in 2018 and will run through 2021, while a third phase is envisaged.

The purpose of the EQPR is to provide a methodology for assessing refugees’ qualifications even when these cannot be fully documented and to have the assessment accepted across borders.

It provides an assessment of higher education qualifications based on available documentation and a structured interview. It also presents information on the applicant’s work experience and language proficiency. The document provides reliable information for integration and progression towards employment and admission to further studies.

It is a specially developed assessment scheme for those refugees who cannot fully document their qualifications. Ultimately, it is hoped that any refugee can have his or her qualifications assessed on demand by contacting a national information centre on recognition (ENIC-NARIC).

Using the EQPR in Italy

Italy was one of the original four participants in the EQPR project and the Italian Ministry of University and Research provides significant financial support. Italy has been a pioneer in exploring how the EQPR can help holders access higher education by involving universities in the assessment process and it is now providing scholarship opportunities for EQPR holders.

In Italy, the EQPR has been used mainly as an instrument for access to higher education, giving refugees with adequate qualifications the possibility to enrol in academic programmes. So far, 143 interviews have been conducted and 49 EQPR holders are studying at Italian higher education institutions.

This has been made possible thanks to a systemic approach, with the support of the Ministry of University and Research, the coordination of CIMEA (the Italian ENIC), and the active involvement of 34 higher education institutions in the National Coordination for the Evaluation of Refugee Qualifications (CNVQR).

This is an informal network of experts in higher education institutions who deal with the recognition of qualifications for the purpose of sharing practices and experience in the assessment of qualifications held by refugees.

Access to scholarships

In 2020, the EQPR was accepted among the documents allowing holders to apply for the university scholarships offered to refugees or international protection holders managed by the Conference of Italian University Rectors (CRUI) with the Italian Ministry of the Interior and the National Association of the bodies for the right to higher education (ANDISU).

CRUI received 207 applications, and 96 out of the 100 scholarships available were awarded to students now enrolled in Italian universities. Of these, 11 are EQPR holders. This result should be read in the light of the active involvement of Italian higher education institutions in interview-based assessments, in coordination with an international team of credentials evaluators from the Italian and other ENICs involved in the project.

Members of the National Coordination for the Evaluation of Refugee Qualifications (CNVQR) have been on the frontline.

The EQPR as a game changer?

In November 2020, the ministers of education of the 49 member countries of the European Higher Education Area adopted the Rome Communiqué at the ministerial conference hosted by Italy.

In the communiqué, the ministers committed to reviewing legislation, regulations and practice to ensure fair recognition of qualifications held by refugees, displaced persons and persons in refugee-like situations, even when they cannot be fully documented, in accordance with Article VII of the Lisbon Recognition Convention. They expressly welcomed the EQPR and stated that they “will support further broadening its use in our systems”.

Over the more than 20 years of the Bologna Process, several initiatives, such as the overarching qualifications frameworks of the EHEA or the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance, have acted as ‘game changers’ in higher education.

Can the EQPR be considered as a full-fledged Bologna tool? According to the Italian experience, there are several reasons to believe so and to consider the EQPR a game changer.

First, the EQPR is having a concrete impact on the life of its holders, unlocking great potential that would otherwise be hidden.

Second, the EQPR brings a shift in the concept of qualifications, putting the spotlight on the knowledge, understanding, competences and abilities acquired. Under certain conditions, according to specific criteria and through a rigorous methodology, the EQPR experience shows us that it is possible to recognise competences even if documentation is scarce or missing by verifying the applicants’ education pathway.

The third element is the perspectives the EQPR can provide when it comes to transforming higher education institutions. The EQPR can be considered a key tool to foster inclusion within our universities by diversifying the student population and helping to shape institutions’ social outreach.

The Italian experience testifies to a remarkable level of awareness among higher education staff, both administrative and academic, who participate in training sessions with professional credentials evaluators.

Fourth – and this is not the least important element – the EQPR can have a positive ripple effect on society. From seeing refugees as a burden to our communities, the EQPR can help refugees to contribute to the development of their host countries and communities as students or professionals.

This is illustrated by the contribution that refugees have made to our societies since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Council of Europe, the UNHCR and other project partners have organised EQPR sessions for refugees with academic qualifications in health-related fields.

The EQPR provides an opportunity to unlock untapped talents and support communities in the fight against COVID. Their professional support in this emergency showed the way the critical situations they originally escaped from can be transformed into support for their countries of destination.

Italy is an example of a country in which the public authorities have been open to making good use of refugees’ qualifications in health-related areas, under the supervision of duly licensed health professionals. In some countries, the obstacles are more difficult to overcome.

The fact that COVID will not be the short-term crisis envisaged by most only a year ago makes it even more important to see how European countries can both draw on refugees’ real but sometimes inadequately documented qualifications and give them an opportunity to contribute to their new societies. That will also help the refugees’ countries of origin if and when they can return home.

Chiara Finocchietti is deputy director of CIMEA, the Italian ENIC centre and a member of the ENIC Bureau/NARIC Advisory Board as well as the EQPR project group. Sjur Bergan is head of the Council of Europe’s Education Department and has been involved with the Bologna Process and European Higher Education Area since 2000. He has been central in the development of both the Lisbon Recognition Convention and the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees.