Qualification recognition is a question of fairness and access

Unesco’s efforts to enable degree qualification recognition across borders will improve access to higher education for refugees and displaced people, says Joanna Newman 

November 25, 2019
refugees walking
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At the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) general conference this month, a “learning crisis” was declared. Trends indicate that 225 million children aged six to 17 will be out of school in 2030. Yet in the context of higher education, we have seen a rapid and vast increase in the number of people studying at university. The global gross tertiary enrolment ratio (GTER) has more than doubled, reaching 38 per cent in 2017. Underneath this figure, however, lies a startling inequality – the GTER in sub-Saharan Africa is 9 per cent, compared with 77 per cent in Europe and North America.

The dramatic increase in demand for higher education has placed a strain on national HE systems, as they struggle to expand provision while maintaining quality. Governments and donors have devised various innovative ways to address the issue. Technology offers one solution, as can be seen in the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning, which addresses critical academic staff shortages in east African universities using quality assured, credit-bearing degree courses delivered through blended learning.

International mobility is another crucial factor in meeting this demand. Opportunities to study and conduct research abroad enable more students to access higher education, and facilitate academic exchanges that help enhance the quality of university teaching, learning, and research.

Again, we see a picture of massive growth in international mobility, with more than 5 million students studying abroad currently. And they aren’t all in what might be considered the traditional study destinations: the UK, the US, Australia or Canada, for example. Countries such as China, Malaysia, Singapore and Mauritius are offering international student experiences at a lower cost than the traditional destinations.

From the perspective of equity and inclusion, most mobility opportunities are unfortunately still limited to those who can afford them. One way of making it a more level playing field is by enabling the recognition of qualifications across borders – which is why the ACU welcomes Unesco’s new Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications. 

The first UN convention on higher education with a worldwide scope, it is an important political signal from the global higher education community of the importance of enabling people and ideas to move across borders, at a time when these freedoms can feel under threat.

The convention will provide consistency at the institutional level, through a common framework for the recognition of qualifications across all countries. It will help build increased mutual understanding of education systems and structures, leading to greater collaboration.

For individuals, it will provide fairness – the right of a holder of a higher education qualification to have that qualification assessed in a fair, transparent and non-discriminatory way in another country. It doesn’t guarantee that their qualification will be recognised, but it provides, for the first time, a universal framework. It also places the burden of proof on the recognition authority, rather than the individual.

This is particularly significant when considering access to higher education for refugees and displaced people. Only 3 per cent of refugees currently have access to higher education, and one of the main obstacles is the lack of recognition of their previous studies and qualifications. Refugees often find themselves in a new country without any official documentary evidence of their qualifications. The convention will provide, for the first time, a global standardised process for countries to understand and map out equivalence.

The ACU is committed to working with its member universities and partners to support wider access to higher education for refugees and displaced people. On 26 November, to mark World Access to Higher Education Day, we are partnering with King’s College London to host a conference highlighting the different approaches universities have taken to enable refugees to continue their education. We will hear about blended learning programmes that deliver education in refugee camps, outreach and holistic support for student success, rapid response mechanisms for higher education in emergencies – and, crucially, from students and academics who have experienced displacement about their own personal journeys to accessing higher education.

We look forward to the new convention being adopted by the Unesco general conference later this month, after which Unesco will launch a campaign to encourage countries to sign up, alongside technical assistance. The convention will sit on top of existing regional frameworks – such as the Bologna Process – and we know that there are gaps in ratification and implementation even at the regional level. 

Governments and the higher education sector must continue to work together to make sure that the aspirations and intentions of the global convention are realised in practice. International mobility is more important than ever for higher education, and everyone should have the same opportunity to reap the rewards.

Joanna Newman MBE FRSA is chief executive and secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

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