Greater student mobility? There’s a convention for that

Due to COVID-19, many international students have refrained from studying abroad. The number of temporary student exchanges has also dropped dramatically.

In light of this situation, it is important to strengthen regional student mobility – that is, promoting the flow of talent around the Asia-Pacific region for work, research and study.

International students play an important role in education diplomacy in the region, which cultivates in-depth, long-lasting inter-cultural understanding and regional cooperation.

At the same time, student mobility is crucial to young people, academic institutions and the business sector as it generates more opportunities.

There is a relevant, yet rather less explored, convention that specifically seeks to improve regional student mobility, which is the Asia-Pacific Regional Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education. It currently enjoys the support of 12 state parties, which include Australia, China, Japan, Mongolia, New Zealand, Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation.

To fully realise the structural influence of this convention, it is very important to get more Asian-Pacific countries to join it.

What is the convention?

The convention came into force in 2018. In simple terms, state parties to the convention have to make arrangements to assess foreign qualifications from other party states (Article III of the convention).

Qualifications will be recognised “unless a substantial difference can be shown” (Article VI.1). “Qualifications” are defined broadly to include those obtained from pre-university (Article IV) and university (Article VI) education.

The convention deserves attention because it is one of the few that is already in force. By contrast, other recent conventions, such as the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in 2019, are not yet in force due to a lack of sufficient participating member states.

Even for those that are in force, they have other scopes, such as the Addis Ababa Convention in 2019 and the Lisbon Recognition Convention in 1999 which focus on the African and European regions respectively.

How can the convention help restore student mobility?

First, the mutual recognition of qualifications encourages more regional cooperation in terms of education, work, science and culture. The very first line of the preamble of the convention emphasises that this is “guided by a common will to strengthen their geographical, cultural, educational and economic ties”.

In the absence of a regionwide convention, the same recognition can be done bilaterally between governments (such as the one between China and Malaysia) or privately among universities, themselves.

For example, the Malaysian Ministry of Education provides their list of memoranda of understanding with a handful of other countries.

But participating in the convention vitally symbolises the commitment and willingness of a member government to multilaterally consider qualifications originating from other member states. It is a more effective and inclusive way to promote student mobility within the region, as opposed to a piecemeal bilateral approach.

Second, the convention is not just a symbol of openness to cooperation. It also substantively improves student mobility by requiring measures that encourage students to continue their studies across the region. The convention seeks governments’ recognition of both completed studies (Articles IV and VI) and ‘partial studies’ taken within the region (Article V.1).

These help students to pick up studies that have been interrupted by COVID-19.

Further, when the participating governments take the lead to recognise foreign qualifications, this structurally encourages their local universities to do the same. Article III.3.3 of the convention stipulates that governments shall “instruct or encourage” their own local institutions to assess foreign qualifications.

With these mechanisms in place, both physical and virtual student exchange can become more accessible.

Now is the time to reactivate student mobility

Governments should seriously consider joining the convention. First, the momentum in favour of student mobility is building up again, as the borders within the region reopen at varying paces (for example, Japan is increasing its visa quota for international students and New Zealand has moved up its reopening schedule for the benefit of international students).

Furthermore, it is crucial to bear in mind that the convention promotes not just physical student mobility, but also virtual exchange through stronger mutual recognition.

There are also upcoming multilateral meetings organised by the United Nations that provide an invaluable forum for regional discussion, including the 2nd Asia-Pacific Regional Education Ministers’ Conference in June and the Transforming Education Summit in September.

The convention serves the region’s interests by reinforcing countries’ inter-connectedness, not just in education, but also in work and culture.

Reinvigorating student mobility also broadens access to quality education within the region, which helps states to fulfil their international commitments in relation to the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 4.3.

Martin Kwan is a researcher in international law and public policy. He has been appointed a consultative member for the UNESCO SDG4 Youth Network and is a UNESCO-APCEIU youth leader on global citizenship education. e-mail: