Are Lisbon and Global recognition conventions aligned?

On 4 and 5 July the very first Intergovernmental Conference of the States Parties to the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education (GC) convenes at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris. The meeting is considered an historic event as it signals the start of the implementation of the first UN treaty on higher education with a global scope.

The treaty has its roots in the adoption of the Tokyo Convention in 2011, when the feasibility of a global instrument on recognition was first raised. The idea of a ‘global convention’ took root in the context of a steep increase in international student mobility, which necessitated the renewal of UNESCO’s regional conventions to support fair recognition in this new reality.

Regionally, this resulted in revised conventions for the Asia and Pacific region (Tokyo 2011), African region (Addis Ababa 2014) and Latin America and the Caribbean region (Buenos Aires 2019), all of which have now entered into force.

The Lisbon Recognition Convention (1997) is also considered part of this new generation of treaties. While a revised convention for the Arab States was adopted in 2022, this has still not entered into force.

As for the GC, it would take eight years from the initial idea to the adoption of a new treaty, a process that involved an expert drafting committee, written consultation with member states and stakeholders and intergovernmental negotiation meetings, before the final text was adopted in November 2019 at the 40th session of the UNESCO General Conference.

A milestone for international student mobility and recognition

The adoption of the GC was a true milestone, being the very first United Nations treaty on higher education with a global scope. Currently there are more than 236 million people enrolled in higher education globally. 6.3 million are international students, which is a number that has more than doubled in the past 20 years and is likely to double again in the next two decades. Significant, in relation to the GC, is that 50% of these students study outside their home region.

The GC provides a framework of universal principles for the recognition of studies and supports physical and virtual academic mobility everywhere. The GC builds on and complements the five regional recognition conventions and extends principles from regional to global level. It promotes and supports interregional mobility of students and qualification holders.

Almost two and a half years after the Global Convention was adopted, the treaty entered into force in March of this year, three months after the 20th ratification on 5 December 2022. As of June 2023 there are 22 ratifications, of which about one third are members of the ENIC-NARIC Networks.

Towards implementation

The first Intergovernmental Conference of the States Parties on 4 and 5 July signals a new phase towards implementation of the GC. The mandate of the conference is to promote the application of the convention and oversee its implementation by adopting recommendations, declarations, models of good practices or any relevant subsidiary text at the global or interregional level.

Having a working operational structure is essential for supporting the implementation of the convention as we have seen from the regional conventions. In the European region (Lisbon Recognition Convention) the ENIC-NARIC Networks, and within the Networks, the working group on electronic communication for recognition (ELCORE), are driving forces behind organising communication, information sharing, peer learning and development of good practice.

Global and regional conventions compatible

While it was clear early on that the GC and the Lisbon Recognition Convention (LRC) were compatible, one question that remained was whether there were areas that required clarification and if so, if this held any implications for recognition bodies.

The Erasmus+ I-AR project addressed this question by mapping the GC against the LRC. Next, the I-AR project team reviewed whether the GC included definitions and areas not covered by the LRC. The analysis mainly showed the two conventions are fully compatible and there are no major discrepancies between the LRC and GC: “Global Convention = Lisbon Recognition Convention + subsidiary texts”.

While the GC is short and concise compared to the LRC, and also contains new concepts and features, there are no significant new practices or processes that need to be introduced when implementing the GC.

Topics covered in the GRC that at first glance did not appear in the LRC actually featured in the subsidiary texts and/or the compendium of good practices produced by the ENIC-NARIC Networks.

A clear example is the definition of ‘substantial differences’ between a foreign qualification and the corresponding national qualification, which is featured in the GC but not in the LRC. Yet the same definition has its basis in the European Area of Recognition (EAR) manual, which is a practical translation of the LRC.

Additionally, when it comes to how it relates to other conventions, the GC introduces the principle of precedence, meaning that it is always the convention that is most favourable for applicants that prevails, whether it is the GC or a regional convention. While this principle is not included in the LRC, it is in line with its spirit and the GC does not interfere with the good practice of the LRC, unless it makes it better.

Reflections on moving implementation forward

The main conclusion from the analysis is that LRC states that parties can join the GC with no significant implications for their operations. The results were further discussed with a group of 37 ENIC-NARICs at the last ENIC-NARIC joint meeting. The discussion focused on questions related to: 1) obstacles in ratifying; 2) support from the ENIC-NARIC community and UNESCO and best practice for implementation; and 3) open questions regarding implementation.

A major obstacle identified in the process of ratifying the Global Convention is that, for some countries, ratification processes are heavy and difficult, for example, because of complex legal and governance structures. In those cases, more effort is required to get all relevant parties on board to understand the added value of taking the process forward.

Additionally, attitudes and cultural differences are in play; in some countries ratification can only happen if compliance is guaranteed or if the obligations of the convention are already implemented, while for others this is not seen as a requirement.

The ENIC-NARICs stressed that UNESCO and the ENIC-NARIC community can support and aid countries through the process of ratifying the GC, including looking at best practice examples from implementing the LRC. Examples include the many UNESCO publications and webinars, including the Practical Implementation Guide.

The consensus was that there should be structured cooperation between regions, not only to support ratification, but also to support implementation of the GC and fair recognition within regions.

One major suggestion highlighted was to establish an overarching working group, for example, on communication and technical aspects (such as the ELCORE working group). Such a working group could support the creation of a global repository of information, tools and instruments.

‘Networking’ as a way of ‘community building’ and generating trust should be transposed on the global level, for example, through joint projects, regular inter-regional or even global meetings.

Additionally, it was suggested that global monitoring of the GC comparable to the LRC monitoring done by the LRC Committee Bureau should be set up, with alignment when it comes to the burden of reporting.

Moreover, ENIC-NARICs reflected on implementation. This covered a wide variety of topics from more technical to more principled and operational ones. One stemmed from the good and decade-long collaboration in the ENIC-NARIC Networks and focused on the balance in governance, compared to other regions. Given that currently two thirds of ratifying states are from the ENIC-NARIC Network there is a geographical imbalance in representation.

Additionally, while the countries that ratified the GC currently host 25% of the globally international students, there are many countries invested in their commitment to regional conventions who were not able to ratify the GC yet.

Only the states parties have a seat at the table and will be able to steer the initial operationalisation.

Even so, it would be a welcome move for regional relations if inclusive ways of collaboration across networks could be found as this supports fair recognition practices for now and may aid future ratification.

Helén Sophie Haugen is head of department at the Norwegian Directorate for Higher Education and Skills of the Norwegian ENIC-NARIC and currently serves as a member of the NARIC Advisory Board. Jenneke Lokhoff is senior policy officer at Nuffic and an international expert in recognition of foreign qualifications. She recently served as president of the ENIC-NARIC Networks. Andreas Snildal is senior programme officer at the Section of Higher Education at UNESCO.