Historic convening to boost mobility in higher education
In a world where migration, forced displacement and international study are a reality for millions, such a meeting is both necessary and historic.
The First Session of the Intergovernmental Conference of the States Parties, as the conference is titled, will set the rules and modalities of how the international community can implement UNESCO’s landmark Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education.
The legally binding treaty, which entered into force in March of this year, recognises that the higher education of persons who have been forced to flee or have migrated must not be automatically discounted or demoted.
More than six million learners are studying outside of their national borders, as mobility and displacement have become a regular feature of life in the 21st century. We need a standardised international system by which we can assess foreign qualifications in a fair, transparent and non-discriminatory manner for all students and graduates.
The conference brings together the 22 UNESCO states that have already ratified the convention, along with more than 50 other countries that will join as observers, as well as representatives of the global higher education community. Together, they will determine the ways of working, rules, norms and standards that will shape how the convention will be implemented for years to come.
A rapidly changing landscape
The convention is UNESCO’s response to the rapidly changing landscape of higher education. Over the last two decades, the number of students enrolled in higher education has doubled, reaching over 236 million. International student mobility, on the other hand, has nearly tripled.
To ensure that students from different population groups can access higher education, the convention has introduced ground-breaking provisions for the recognition of prior learning and partially completed studies, thereby promoting equity and inclusion.
At the same time, the convention affirms that qualifications obtained through non-traditional learning, such as online and distance education, should be treated on a par with traditional degrees, while also emphasising quality assurance as a prerequisite for recognition of any qualification.
The convention also pays special attention to refugees and displaced persons. Forcibly displaced students often experience difficulties in providing documentary evidence of their qualifications. The devastating impact of this is clear: only 6% of refugees have access to higher education according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, compared to the far higher 40% among non-refugees.
One of the main challenges that refugees face is that they lack the necessary documentation to prove their prior education. This is why we at UNESCO urge the states that will attend the conference to develop processes to officially recognise cases where partial studies, prior learning or qualifications cannot be proven by documentary evidence.
There are ways to do this, as we know from rolling out the UNESCO Qualifications Passport for Refugees and Vulnerable Migrants.
The Qualifications Passport presents available information on a student’s educational level, work experience and language proficiency and gives instructions on how their qualifications can be utilised in their host countries.
By bridging the gap between their previous educational achievements and the opportunities in their new surroundings, the Qualifications Passport has empowered refugees and migrants in several countries where it has been piloted, including, for example, in Zambia where the passport helped refugees get back on track by pursuing their education.
When the 22 states that have already ratified the convention meet in Paris next week, they will lay the foundations for a system that will empower international students, migrants and refugees with the academic recognition they need to get jobs, continue their studies and build a better, more secure life.
UNESCO proposes to establish collaborative forums for states to share their experiences and expertise and help to standardise rules in a transparent way. We also call on more countries to ratify the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications, making this treaty a truly global instrument for fair recognition and inclusivity in higher education.
Stefania Giannini is UNESCO assistant director-general for education.