UNESCO working towards global recognition of higher education qualifications

unescoIn recent years, mobility of students and workforce has created increased attention on instruments that would make cross-border recognition of educational qualifications easier. This has frequently been presented as an issue and can understandably be a quite frustrating process to have your hard earned foreign diploma not recognized in your home country. While a number of regional initiatives have emerged world wide – are we now witnessing a more global effort in this area?

Lisbon Convention

UNESCOs convention on recognition of qualifications for the European region was adopted in 1997 in Lisbon, and is signed by all of the 47 countries in the Council of Europe with the exception of Greece and Monaco.

It introduced a rather novel idea at the time as it states that qualifications are to be recognized between the countries that have signed the regional convention unless the recognition granting institution can prove “substantial differences”. Basically this means that the process of recognition is turned around – by default one does not need to prove equivalence of degrees to assure recognition, but one has to prove that there is substantial difference for degrees not to recognize a qualification. This is also one of the reasons why Lisbon Recognition convention has been essential in the context of the Bologna Process.

Increased focus on cross-border mobility and recognition in Europe

Recognition and cross-border mobility seems to be a topic that is increasingly gaining focus, also in difficult economic times when mobility of labour force and students is perhaps more relevant than ever and the inherent benefits of mobility are frequently emphasized in political documents and official statements.

In Europe this interest in recognition is marked by a number of instruments. There is the hard law based directive on regulated professions – which implies that on certain professional fields there is automatic recognition. These professions include doctor, nurse, dentist, veterinary surgeon, midwife, pharmacist and architect. For the remaining of qualifications, there is the European Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning (EQF) that was introduced in 2008 and is more closely related to the EU that is supposed to facilitate recognition of qualifications through the development of national qualifications frameworks in Europe. In addition there is also the higher education focused Qualifications Framework for the European Higher Education Area developed in the intergovernmentally led Bologna Process.

While the impact of these developments has been varied in European countries, there appears to be more consciousness over cross-border recognition as a theme, and some of the recent debates are focused on how EQF and Bologna framework could also be integrated with initiatives beyond Europe and connect together various regions and countries.

From regional to global scale?

UNESCO operates with 6 regional conventions: Africa, Arab States, Asia and Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and 2 in Europe (an earlier one from 1979 and the Lisbon Convention from 1997). In addition there is also an interregional convention  for the Mediterranean countries. However – the debate has now moved towards introducing a more global scope to this process, in essence not a small task as the conventions this far have been rather diverse in how they are outlined and structured. The idea of recognition unless substantial difference was only introduced in the Lisbon convention in 1997, whereas a number of the other conventions were developed in the 1970s and 1980s.

UNESCO held its General Conference earlier in November this year where a preliminary study on the technical and legal aspects of creating a “global standard setting instrument on the recognition of higher education qualifications” was introduced and further work towards this global convention was approved. In the preliminary study it was highlighted that the interest in existing regional conventions has been declining, largely because a number of these conventions were adopted decades ago are not appropriate for the “new dynamics in higher education“. The document highlights issues of globalisation and internationalisation as well as new developments in higher education (for instance, online learning and MOOCs) that all require a “a global response to enable societies to be more sustainable, resilient and adaptive“.

New global convention?

While there are new challenges, the form of the instrument would not be radically different, the proposed new global convention would be legally binding and universal and build on existing regional frameworks. The key aims highlighted in the document include that the convention shall:

  • develop overarching principles which reflect values common to all regions, as well as subsidiary texts to deal with specific needs of regions;
  • build on the regional conventions that are successful and functional;
  • provide the missing international framework for qualifications recognition and promote mutual trust across regions;
  • provide a vehicle for use in regions where the regional conventions are not operating or are dysfunctional; and 
  • provide a mechanism for assisting Member States, in particular the small and less developed ones or those without qualifications frameworks, national information centres or quality assurance mechanism

As such, it does signal a number of purposes. Not only is it to reinvigorate the existing practices, it shall also function as a development tool in certain countries, and at the same time also be a meta-convention for existing conventions that are being used actively.

The preliminary study highlights that UNESCO has received a high level of support for this development. Bjørn Haugstad from the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research commented on this by highlighting the high level of support by Norway in this development:Norway has been an important advocate for such global convention and has throughout the process supported UNESCOs initiative. Our experience is that conventions do have an effect“.

Desirable and feasible?

Fulfilling all of the stated aims seems to be a monumental task with respect to the diversity of higher education systems world wide, especially as the political support to this initiative is not given by default at all times in the future. UNESCO preliminary study highlights that the “academic challenges of a global standard setting instrument differ in scale but not in nature from the regional conventions”, and Europe is used as an example to show diversity that is not unlike the global scale. While one can perhaps debate this statement, the conclusion by the Director-General is that despite possible challenges, the development of this new global convention is both “desirable and feasible“.

There seems to be agreement at the moment amongst the relevant parties that the development is definitely desirable, however, only time will tell regarding the feasibility aspect and whether the new convention can fulfill all the different purposes and aims. Nevertheless, the development of this new global convention is for sure something that countries world wide should follow closely.