In qualifications recognition, a milestone has been reached

The Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education (Global Convention) entered into force on 5 March and represents a true milestone in the international legal framework for qualifications recognition and an important step in boosting international student mobility as well as helping refugees access higher education outside their home countries.

It builds on regional conventions such as the Lisbon Recognition Convention and is part of the fast-evolving landscape of recognition of qualifications. It is a good juncture to look back at how it came into being, from our perspective in the ENIC-NARIC* networks, and where recognition is going next.

Growth in student mobility

Over 235 million higher education students were enrolled globally in 2020, a number that has more than doubled since 2000. In this timeframe, the number of internationally mobile students in higher education has tripled, from two to six million, according to the UNESCO Higher Education Global Data Report, published at the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference in Barcelona in May 2022.

This trend seems to have been confirmed with regard to recognition flows by a recent study carried out by ENIC-NARIC networks. The study presents the main trends and developments for recognition of foreign qualifications on a global scale, from the perspective of ENIC-NARIC centres.

The most striking result concerns the analysis of recognition requests received by centres and regions: despite a possibly expected regionalisation of mobility, no marked variations have been registered since 2015 when the first survey was launched, yet applications have continued from the same 10 top countries.

Interesting here is that even the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t stop this trend as individuals kept applying in the same or even increasing numbers, which may be indicative of what to expect in the future.

These trends are one reason, among many others, that show why recognition of qualifications is a topic that is high on the agenda at European level and globally.

It is in this context that the UNESCO Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education entered into force. The Global Convention, whose main aim is to facilitate and enable student mobility all over the world, also connects all the regional conventions, such as the Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region, known as the Lisbon Recognition Convention, adopted in 1997.

From the more than 20 years of experience of the Lisbon Recognition Convention and from the monitoring report which shows evidence of its implementation across countries, there are a few dimensions that seem to be relevant on a global scale.

Forced mobility

Firstly, people do not only move as a result of their own free choice. There is ‘forced’ mobility of people, and specifically students, of all ages, who flee from conflicts and crises.

According to UNHCR data, at the end of 2021 89.3 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced, of which 27.1 million were refugees. Currently, refugees’ enrolment rate in higher education globally is around 6% – significantly lower than the global average higher education enrolment among non-refugees which stands at more than 40%.

Access to higher education for those displaced still remains a challenge for a number of reasons, such as financial insecurity, language barriers, but also difficulties in having their qualifications recognised, especially if they fled without their educational documentation.

The Global Convention has a specific article addressing the recognition of qualifications held by refugees, even in the case of partial or missing documentation, that is a sibling article of the one contained in the Lisbon Recognition Convention.

From a European perspective, recognition of qualifications held by refugees has been a long-standing goal, as witnessed by the 2017 Recommendation on Recognition of Qualifications Held by Refugees, Displaced Persons and Persons in a Refugee-like Situation.

The implementation of the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees, among other tools, has made it possible to recognise the qualifications of refugees even in the case of missing educational documentation. This makes it possible to overcome one of the challenges to accessing higher education. The use of the UNESCO Qualifications Passport at a global scale is serving the same purpose.

Flexibilisation and digitisation

Another dimension is the growing flexibilisation of higher education, which refers to the trend to offer stand-alone modular education and to the use of micro-credentials to allow learners of all ages to ‘upskill’ and re-skill work-wise and academic-wise.

Recognition is key for micro-credentials to keep their promise of supporting lifelong learning, as indicated in reference documents such as, for instance, the Rome Ministerial Communiqué signed in 2020 by the ministers in charge of higher education in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), in the Recommendation of the Council of the European Union on a European approach to micro-credentials for lifelong learning and employability, and in the MICROBOL common framework for micro-credentials in the EHEA.

The Global Convention in this sense seems to ‘widen’ the concept of recognition, explicitly including, for instance, prior learning.

Proof of completion of micro-credentials is – more than traditional qualifications – offered in a digital format. In general, digitalisation is increasingly seen as a means of supporting the recognition of academic qualifications as quickly and ‘automatically’ as possible as well as verifying their authenticity.

The emergence of artificial intelligence and its impact on the exchange of digital student data and on the recognition of qualifications is still to be investigated.

The 2022 monitoring report on the Lisbon Recognition Convention has shown that the majority of signatory countries have implemented digital systems or solutions when it comes to recognition and the Global Convention explicitly refers to the use of technology as a way to eradicate all forms of fraudulent practices regarding higher education qualifications.

Quality education – SDG 4

The Global Convention stresses the importance of robust quality assurance in education systems as a pillar to create trust, which is the basis of mutual recognition of qualifications between systems.

This is connected to the concept of a quality education, in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4, ie, education that is free from fraud and corruption.

From a European perspective, a step forward has been made with the adoption of the Council of Europe recommendation on countering education fraud, which contains a number of provisions that are relevant for the recognition community, as a way of countering diploma mills and fraudulent qualifications.

This is in line with the UNESCO vision as described in Beyond Limits: New ways to reinvent higher education that looks into ethics and integrity as one of the six principles that will shape the future of higher education as we move towards 2030.

In addition, recognition in itself contributes to quality education, given that it is a starting point to assess whether a student is likely to succeed. To do so, students need to access their programme at the correct level, both for them as well as for the institution.

What next for recognition?

Recognition is evolving quickly due to the changing landscape in higher education, ever-increasing student mobility and the political ambitions behind moves to strengthen recognition processes. Collaboration between stakeholders on the basis of the fair principles offered by the Lisbon Recognition Convention, the regional conventions and now the Global Recognition Convention is an essential start.

Capacity building, the provision of transparent information and good quality recognition procedures are also key to supporting student mobility at an international level. The establishment of national centres for information about recognition in networks in the Asia Pacific, African and Latin American regions will play a vital role in reaching these goals.

* ENIC is the European Network of National Information Centres while NARIC is the National Academic Recognition Information Centre and CIMEA is the Information Centre on Academic Mobility and Equivalence.

Chiara Finocchietti is director of CIMEA-NARIC Italia and vice-president of the ENIC Bureau. Jenneke Lokhoff is senior policy officer at Nuffic and president of the ENIC-NARIC Networks.