The West must recognise unofficial degrees from authoritarian countries

Victims of oppression often have to study informally; they should not be barred from pursuing an overseas master’s, say Natasha Robinson and David Mills

September 28, 2022
A protester stands with a Myanmar Student Union flag, 2021
Source: Getty

Women in Afghanistan. Uighurs in China. Anti-coup protesters in Myanmar. Around the world, students are forced to abandon their university studies because of political or religious repression. As the number of authoritarian regimes increases and as some of the affected students resort to alternative forms of higher education, how should Western universities respond?

One group that has long faced educational repression is the Iranian Baha’i community, the largest religious minority in the country. After the 1979 revolution, Baha’i professors and faculty members were dismissed from all Iranian universities, and in 1981 an official decree was issued barring Baha’i students from admission to public universities.

In response, the Baha’i community in 1987 established the virtual Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), through which young Baha’is could continue to learn. Today, the institute has 18 undergraduate and 14 postgraduate programmes and accepts about 450 new students a year, all of whom must sit the national entrance exam and continue to meet BIHE academic requirements.

However, the BIHE remains intentionally unofficial and highly decentralised. It charges no fees, hires no professors (all staff are volunteers), and issues no certificates. Students mostly study at home, either online or through correspondence, and when they do meet it is often in private homes.

This lack of formal structure is designed to limit further persecution. Throughout its 35-year history, the BIHE has suffered numerous arrests, periodic raids, several imprisonments and mass confiscation of equipment. In May 2011, 17 Baha’i educators and staff affiliated with the BIHE were arrested in a coordinated raid of 40 households across several Iranian cities.

However, the BIHE’s informal status poses a challenge for its graduates. Mehran Koushkebaghi, for example, completed a four-year bachelor’s course in civil engineering there, but because his degree is not recognised by the government, no Iranian company would recognise him as a graduate – and as a Baha’i, he was barred from all government employment.

Like many of his fellow BIHE “non-graduates”, Mehran decided to leave Iran and do a master’s degree abroad. However, his lack of formal qualifications was an issue here, too. His strategy was to aim for universities that had previously accepted BIHE students, but even one of those, a Russell Group institution, rejected him. The admissions officer explained that offers had more recently been confined to applications from “leading institutions” in Iran or other “public universities known to the university”.

Such statements suggest a lack of comprehension of the situation facing the Baha’i community. And while Mehran was accepted by three other universities and now, having graduated, works for a major UK bank, not all such stories have a happy ending.

There are other groups excluded from their countries’ public universities who turn to alternative sources of learning. The California-based University of the People has a programme geared specifically towards women barred from higher education by the Taliban, for instance. More than two thousand have registered and now study in secret. However, while studying at the not-for-profit institution may be free, certification is not – and $4,800 (£4,300) for a four-year BA is out of reach for most Afghans.

In Myanmar, the Stars Do Shine foundation, originally established to educate children exposed to civil conflict, supports those who can no longer attend university following the military coup. Its English-language programmes enable students involved in the civil disobedience movement to apply to universities abroad. It also collaborates with the former students’ unions of several national universities to provide tertiary-level courses in arts and sciences. Again, however, formal qualifications cannot be issued.

Since the mid-1970s, Unesco has promoted the mutual recognition of degrees through regional recognition conventions, such as the 1997 Lisbon Convention. Countries in Europe have a National Information Centre (ENIC) that provides guidance on degree standards to universities and, in some cases, makes legally binding recognition decisions.

The UK’s ENIC recently helped to develop the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees (EQPR). This document explains the qualifications a particular refugee is likely to have, based on the available evidence (including an interview with credential evaluation experts from across the ENIC network). It is a way of recognising qualifications among people who have been forced to flee without their degree certificates.

However, Mehran would not be eligible for an EQPR because he was never a refugee. Moreover, the EQPR recognises only formal education institutions. When we raised this problem with Paul Norris, the head of the UK ENIC, he explained that “it’s not that there isn’t a willingness to help but rather [that] the mechanisms don’t truly exist at this moment in time, since the focus so far has been on formal institutions”. There are programmes in place to recognise the education of refugees but not to recognise the qualifications of those who have been purposefully denied formal education by their own governments.

Decisions about the recognition of prior learning are made by university admissions offices. As Mehran discovered, these are often inconsistent. Yet Mehran’s experience is likely to become more common as authoritarian regimes proliferate.

If international universities wish to support young people who pursue higher education at personal risk to themselves and their families, then they need to find effective ways to recognise their prior degree-level learning, regardless of whether it is officially certified.

Natasha Robinson is a postdoctoral research officer and David Mills is associate professor in pedagogy and the social sciences in the department of education at the University of Oxford.

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