UN treaty on qualifications recognition enters into force
It marks a decisive turning point on the road to more inclusive and equitable higher education and a world where students can easily move around and across borders to pursue their studies.
Adopted at the 40th Session of the UNESCO General Conference in November 2019, the Global Convention complements the five UNESCO regional conventions on the recognition of higher education qualifications and is designed to strengthen international cooperation in higher education and foster trust and confidence in the quality and reliability of qualifications through the promotion of integrity and ethical practices.
The minimum required number of states ratifying the convention for it to come into force was met when the 19th and 20th states, Iceland and Andorra, deposited their instruments of ratification on 5 December 2022. Some big destination countries for students are among those that have signed up so far, including France, Japan, the United Kingdom and most recently Australia.
Passing the required number of ratifications is also a landmark achievement under UNESCO’s efforts to coordinate and monitor the implementation of the Education 2030 Agenda encapsulated in UN Sustainable Development Goal 4, led by Stefania Giannini, the most senior UN official in education. The former Italian minister for education, universities and research has been UNESCO’s assistant director-general for education for the past five years.
A specified objective of the convention is to “promote, through the recognition of qualifications, inclusive and equitable access to quality higher education and support lifelong learning opportunities for all, including refugees and displaced persons”.
University World News spoke to Giannini about the impact the Global Convention will have in providing a framework for achieving fair, transparent recognition of higher education qualifications across borders and the difference that will make to higher education worldwide.
UWN: What is the significance of the Global Convention coming into force?
Giannini: It is the first international treaty, a UN treaty, on this important topic, which is student mobility, international cooperation between universities and quality assurance and it is establishing universal principles to manage all these important dimensions of higher education.
Mobility will be strengthened at the global scale. So the dream of a global Erasmus [the European Union’s study and exchange programme], as the Europeans might say, can really become something.
It [helps] quality assurance because it provides countries with the legal framework to establish their own national centre to manage the implementation of this convention.
And it is about international cooperation – universities are by definition, I mean it is in their DNA, to be international, but now they can have a common framework for their efforts, so I think it is a big change.
UWN: How many countries do you plan to sign up and by when?
Giannini: Now we have 21 countries which have actually ratified the convention, and among these there are some big players in the international university market, from France and the UK to Japan. And we have some 20 in the pipeline. So expectations from our side, as the secretariat of the convention, is that by the end of this year we could reach between 30 and 40 countries.
UWN: Will that include the US and Germany?
Giannini: I cannot say what is now in the pipeline. It is a very delicate situation. There are interesting countries to come in.
UWN: What is the relationship between the Global Convention and the various regional conventions?
Giannini: The five regional conventions are based on the same principles that the Global Convention is enlarging to a global scale.
The idea through this long process, which took eight years of negotiations, is to have now a global landscape and apply and implement the same principles.
So now, for example, a student coming from Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa, which has already ratified the convention, could move to Norway, the first country in Europe which ratified the convention, having the same kind of facilities and an easier process of recognition of his or her competences and degrees as a European student. And this is a big step forward for global mobility.
UWN: Let’s turn to the words of the convention, some of which are quite striking, including individuals “having the right” to have their qualifications assessed for the purpose of applying for admission to higher education studies or seeking employment opportunities; but also it says state parties “shall” recognise the qualifications of other states unless there is a “substantial” reason. Is this an important step?
Giannini: This is a crucial new step. The Global Convention now puts the burden of proof on the recognition authorities rather than students. And individuals have the right to appeal decisions that go against accepting their qualifications. This is important because it is about giving countries, governments, universities the responsibility to double check and apply principles of transparency.
It is also a very good tool to fight against fake certificates and fraudulent processes that are unfortunately still very much in place in the Global South but not exclusively there.
UWN: Another striking aspect is the sense of inclusivity, the promotion of recognition of prior learning that is not necessarily covered by a formal qualification, where the convention talks of partially completed programmes. Does that mean there can be recognition of prior learning that is not certified by some sort of formal process or do they have to have formal qualifications. How does it work?
Giannini: Listen, there is a specific case which is refugee students, since only 6% have access to higher education, where the convention includes a specific tool, which is about recognition of refugees’ degrees and qualifications. But frequently they don’t have the papers with them and are not able to show their educational pathway and the competence they acquired, including qualifications and formal degrees.
UWN: Yes, for many they have had to leave their homes in a rush without their papers or their papers may have been destroyed along with their homes. Do they have to be assessed?
Giannini: They have to be assessed. So this is part of a very specific chapter of the Global Convention. What we call the UNESCO Qualifications Passport, or UQP, can be applied to refugees.
Now we have five countries which already pilot this tool and we are now in the process of extending the scope, as we have demand from many countries – unfortunately due to their being so many refugees in the world.
It is about a formal process the authorities at a national level have to follow. So it is not simply an interview, but different steps in the procedure in the UQP are required to be validated.
This is an important step forward for the world in terms of non-discrimination, inclusion – and it takes into account that out of the [27 million] refugees in the world, only a small percentage have access [to higher education], so it is about not having the right to higher education.
UWN: UNESCO has been a strong advocate of the right to higher education. It was a key point you made at the World Higher Education Conference 2022 (WHEC 2022) in Barcelona, which UNESCO hosted. How does the Global Convention help in the work to ensure that everyone has a right to higher education?
Giannini: I think that it is putting it on the frontline as universal principles, transparency of procedures, no discrimination, inclusion, cooperation versus competition, diversity versus uniformity of the system of higher education, just to mention some of the principles that came out of the WHEC. It is about addressing the challenges of the current time.
I think it is about democratising as much as possible higher education, which is a strong component for development when it comes to countries and society – and is very much part of the individual right to education.
But, unfortunately, we are not there yet. As you know, there is a very imbalanced situation between the Global North and Global South and between the West and the rest of the world – and we see the Global Convention as a very important equalizer, because it is implementing these principles. And it is about assisting countries to implement [these principles], because this treaty, once a country ratifies it, becomes binding for the local authorities.
It is also about establishing a process of formal dialogue between the central authorities and university ecosystems about responding to these principles.
So in the long term it can really become a game-changer in terms of quality assurance and international mobility, which are two pillars of higher education ecosystems by definition.
UWN: So who is going to benefit from it most? Aspiring students in Global South countries who might find it harder to get their degrees recognised and go on and do further study in more advanced countries? Also, will it encourage governments in the Global South to strengthen their higher education systems in order to be accepted into the Global Convention?
Giannini: Yes, however, it is not only about that. Of course, the Global South should benefit most, being so far from having an easy process of recognition of their own qualifications and unfortunately being very far from having a strong quality assurance system at regional as well as continental level. I am thinking of Africa. We are very much focused at UNESCO on strengthening the quality assurance system of universities, at the country and regional level in Africa. And the Global Convention is the legal framework to move within.
However, this treaty will also benefit East-West cooperation. I can tell you as former minister in Italy a few years ago, it is a big struggle when you don’t have a bilateral agreement with a country which is not part of the European ecosystem.
I am thinking of Japan which, by the way, is a big player in the East of the world and is a big provider of international students and increasingly an international destination for European and Western students. But still there are many obstacles to making the dialogue between universities in the East and West a smooth process based on these principles. So I see very much an impetus for a global quality mobility process.
UWN: You talked a lot at Barcelona about innovation in higher education, developing higher education fit for the future, becoming more about flexible provision, for instance building degrees with micro-credentials and moving towards more joint degrees studied at multiple institutions – like in the European Universities Initiative, with students doing one part of their degree in one university and other parts in other institutions within the same alliance, say, benefiting from different institutions’ different specialisms. Does the Global Convention help those processes of flexibility that are opening up?
Giannini: Yes, this is a very important part of the work to do still. But the principles are already included in the Global Convention in terms of, for instance, accreditation of programmes and institutions.
The rapid evolution of digital credentials is dramatically changing the ecosystem, [raising questions about] recognising parts of the educational journey.
So this should be among the first topics to be addressed in the recommendations and guidelines adopted in the intergovernmental conference of state parties that is convening on 4 and 5 July this year.
This will include in detail how to make the Global Convention a tool to recognise digital credentials specifically and micro-credentials more broadly.
UWN: Is the rapid expansion of micro-credentials going to be a big challenge because we will have so many more programmes to compare and many are evolving in new ways, for instance, in partnership with employers? Is that an extra challenge?
Giannini: It was very much part of the discussion we had to adopt before member states adopted the convention, so I don’t see it as a new challenge but a part of the action plan to implement in coming months and I see this very first intergovernmental meeting between those states that ratified and those in the pipeline to ratify as a crucial time to define these principles.
But I think all the main technical issues that must be taken into account when it comes to recognition of micro-credentials is already part of the discussion that has been developed over the past two years.