Global HE recognition convention parties get to work

A major step towards achieving greater equity in student mobility was taken earlier this month when the first 22 countries ratifying UNESCO’s Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education met with other international higher education stakeholders for a conference of the parties (COP1) to take forward the initiative aimed at worldwide mutual recognition of qualifications.

More than 250 delegates from all corners of the world attended what UNESCO described as “an historic gathering” of state parties committed to increasing academic mobility and heard that the convention is the first UN global treaty in higher education.

The Rules of Procedures were agreed upon, covering election procedures and positions, how to conduct the conferences of the state parties, and the roles of the chair, the bureau and the secretariat on important procedural matters.

The international delegates agreed to work together to create a common set of guidelines to make it much easier for students to move from one country to another for their higher education and then back to their home country with internationally-recognised qualifications.

The two-day conference on 4 and 5 July 2023 hosted by UNESCO in Paris “leapt over the latest hurdles” in what has already been a 12-year marathon by agreeing on a set of rules and regulations for higher education global mutual recognition.

The initiative was first mooted by Norway back in 2011 and the Paris meeting established a governing structure to keep the momentum going between bi-annual meetings of stakeholders, to be known as ‘Intergovernmental Conferences of the States Parties’.

Stig Arne Skjerven, a Norwegian diplomat with a background in higher education, was elected chair of the Intergovernmental Conference, with Melanie Rosenbaum, from the Holy See, elected as Rapporteur. Six vice-chairs, each representing a UNESCO regional group – Côte d’Ivoire, Estonia, Japan, Nicaragua, Tunisia and the United Kingdom – were also elected.

Skjerven told University World News that they needed at least 20 countries for the initiative to progress under the UNESCO-banner.

That ‘magic number’ was reached in early December 2022 when Iceland and Andorra ratified the global convention, which was first adopted during UNESCO’s 39th General Conference in 2019.

Since then two more countries have come on board – Australia at the end of December 2022 and Uruguay in April 2023 – bringing the total to 22 by the time of the Paris meeting this month.

New era for student mobility

“This first conference marks the beginning of a new era for student mobility and university cooperation which can improve the lives of millions of young people and adults,” said Stefania Giannini, UNESCO assistant director-general for education.

“Twenty more countries are in the process of ratifying” she told University World News. “The conference demonstrated a strong commitment among the more than 250 delegates to promote academic mobility, quality assurance and the further internationalisation of higher education.

“We now have the rules of procedure in place that spell out the modalities of work for countries that have signed up to the global convention, highlighting the importance of observers in its work, including organisations involved in accreditation, quality assurance, qualification frameworks, as well as elected student representatives,” she said.

The conference also agreed to set up a working group to develop an interim work programme that will guide implementation, examine relationships between regional and global conventions, conduct research, build capacities, and ensure advocacy and communication, said Giannini.

Skjerven told University World News that getting this far had involved “jumping over hurdles”, but he was delighted at the progress made in Paris and was confident that within the next ten years more than half the 194 UNESCO member states will have ratified the convention. However, some of the big-sending countries for student mobility, such as China and India, have yet to sign-up and the United States of America only rejoined UNESCO on Wednesday, five years after it left during the Trump administration.

Ten years to get this far

“It has taken over ten years to get this far,” Skjerven said. “But I believe the convention has the potential to become a catalyst for further and more equitable mobility in global higher education in the years to come,” he added.

“The global convention is the first UN global treaty in higher education, which in itself is a great achievement, and will build on the regional conventions which have already been established to give regional scope, while adding globally agreed language and inter-regional and global mobility,” he said.

Worldwide estimates suggest there are already 235 million students, with six million studying abroad – up from two million in 2000 – and the number is expected to rise substantially in coming years, said Skjerven.

“Therefore, having mechanisms in place for recognition for students and persons with qualifications from another region is paramount to enable more people with qualifications to move between regions and to increase the choices for students to study inside and outside their own region.”

Removing obstacles for refugees

He said: “Recognition will gradually remove potential high obstacles to student mobility and the convention should contribute to brain circulation beyond those regions which have established mechanisms for recognition, such as Europe.”

The global convention will also include provisions to ensure that refugees and vulnerable migrants can have their qualifications assessed, even when documentary evidence is missing, with the UNESCO Qualifications Passport for Refugees and Vulnerable Migrants seen as playing a key role.

For refugees fleeing global conflicts the qualification passport, which is used both by UNESCO and the Council of Europe, is a mechanism of assessing what exists in the way of documents or pictures, or any other evidence.

“For those without any evidence (of prior learning), they will have to write a detailed self-assessment about their previous studies and have a very thorough interview with recognition experts who will be able to see if it is likely or not that they have the qualification that they say they have.

“It won’t just be a case of someone saying ‘I’ve got a qualification, give me a place on the course’,” he said.

With more and more countries ratifying the convention, it will increase student mobility and open up more options because lack of recognition is an obstacle that will gradually be removed.

“Another advantage as more and more countries ratify the global convention is that it will stimulate brain circulation and make it easier for students to move back to their home countries after studying abroad by ensuring they gain proper recognition for academic qualifications obtained outside their own country or region,” said Skjerven.

All member states ratifying the convention will have to establish “fair, transparent and non-discriminatory mechanisms for (academic) recognition” and encourage more academic cooperation across different regions.

“This should help students from outside Europe who can find it very difficult to have their qualifications recognised (in the West).

“As more and more countries ratify, it will be easier for students and others with qualifications to have more of a free choice of where they study and live,” said Skjerven.

“From a global perspective, it’s a tool that will bring more equity in student mobility with more and more countries ratifying the agreement and utilising the principles in the convention.

“It will also encourage greater knowledge and understanding of different higher education qualifications around the world by making information about them more accessible on the Web. This will help admission and recognition officers understand qualifications in different higher education systems, which will benefit both the applicants and the universities,” predicted Skjerven.

“It won’t all happen tomorrow and there will be more hurdles and obstacles to overcome, but in five years I hope that 50 countries will have ratified the convention and in ten years that number could be 80 to 100.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at