Many higher education institutions should be applauded for their response to the sudden increase of refugees in 2015 as a result of the Syrian civil war. Initiatives arose from governments, institutional leaders, administrators, academic staff and students across the world. Lecture halls and libraries opened to non-students, teaching students offered language courses in asylum camps, and universities reached out to communities of displaced persons.
Some of these grass-roots responses developed into organised schemes, many of which are posted on the European University Association’s website. Its refugees welcome map showcases good practice in the integration of refugees into higher education.
Examples of ambitious plans include the Universities UK guide to institutions on how best to accommodate and adjust to the specific needs of forced migrants. It is ambitious in scope, and the recommendations are concrete.
Meanwhile in Norway, the Oslo Metropolitan University and the University of Oslo launched an “Academic dugnad”, drawing on the non-translatable Norwegian word to describe voluntary and uncompensated collective action.
Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that forced migration will end any time soon, so it is equally important to look for structural changes to our education systems that will make them even more accessible by these groups.
Lasting and sustainable solutions are often systemic. Instead of responding to acute crises, inclusion tools need to reflect an enduring reality. Qualification recognition is a natural starting point.
The recognition of qualifications is essential for entering further or higher education and the skilled labour market. For many refugees, however, education is often not (sufficiently) documented: reliable information on the standards of a qualification can be hard to obtain or archives may have been destroyed by acts of war.
This is why recognition agencies, like the one we work for, have an important role to play. Governments, education institutions and labour markets rely on our professional assessment of qualifications to ensure that people crossing borders possess the required competencies to gain access to further education.
Three years ago, the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education (NOKUT) and our sister organisation, UK-NARIC, developed the qualifications passport. Inspired by the Nansen Passports, which were issued from 1922 to 1938 by the newly founded League of Nations, the concept targets qualification recognition and forced migration.
The idea is both intuitive and innovative: refugees can get their qualifications assessed without going through costly and time-consuming formal recognition procedures.
Instead, a methodology consisting of a professional assessment of available documentation and refugees’ self-reported qualifications is paired with a structured interview.
Results are summarised in a standardised document that also offers a qualified opinion on language proficiency and relevant work experience. Individuals holding a qualifications passport can use it to pursue further studies or to seek employment.
The number of assessments is increasing thanks to recognition offices in Armenia, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK. The methodology has also been tested in Turkey and Lebanon this year.
It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved. Refugees are provided with tools to make better use of their qualifications; their new countries are benefiting from the skills, competencies and capacities that they bring; and such schemes build capacity around Europe in assessing refugees’ qualifications. As the inspiration of the Nansen Passports implies, qualifications passports also aim for portability so that they can be used in different countries if holders of the document are resettled.
We were pleased that a recommendation on the recognition of refugees’ qualifications was added in November 2017 to the Lisbon Recognition Convention. It provides important input, tools and methodology to deal with the specific challenges that stem from forced migration.
Written into the text is an example of good practice: the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees, backed by the Council of Europe.
And we’re excited about the new opportunities presented in the Unesco global recognition convention. In the draft of the document, which is currently up for discussion, the rights of refugees to have their qualifications assessed are addressed, even if they have undocumented qualifications.
Education has always been international by nature, and in recent years, that facet has only broadened through greater cross-border arrangements.
But education is also a human right, a fact that should be entrenched in its regulations and one that should inspire us to think even bigger. The successes of qualifications passports in Europe and beyond is promising. A similar project on a global scale would undoubtedly have a positive impact for refugees with qualifications worldwide and for the receiving countries hosting the millions of forced migrants.
Terje Mørland is director general, and Stig Arne Skjerven is director of foreign education, at the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education (NOKUT).