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Fair recognition: the role of Europe’s universities

Other 19.11.2020

Fair recognition in the European Higher Education Area can only be fully achieved if practices in higher education institutions are more systematically addressed. As Jenneke Lokhoff at Nuffic points out, higher education institutions are key in the practical implementation of the Lisbon Recognition Convention and in finding new ways forward.

The recent EHEA Rome Communiqué calls for strengthening the implementation of the Lisbon Recognition Convention in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Higher education institutions play a central role in achieving this objective. In return, improving the implementation of the Convention will also support higher education institutions in improving quality of the learning environment they provide.

Higher education institutions: the decision makers in academic recognition

Fair recognition of foreign qualifications has been one of the EHEA’s key objectives since it was founded in 1999. Since then, enormous progress has been made. The EHEA pushed for transparency and comparability of education systems and programmes, which resulted in smoother recognition practices. Meanwhile, the legal and operational implementation was backed by the Lisbon Recognition Convention and the operational structure it set up. Yet, there is still some significant work to be done to achieve full implementation, especially on the level of higher education institutions. Why?

In the EHEA, higher education institutions make most of the decisions in the recognition of foreign qualifications. At the same time, there is evidence that this is not always done in line with the Lisbon Recognition Convention, as shown, for example, by the 2018 Bologna Process Implementation Report. A complicating factor is that there is often a lack of knowledge about recognition practices at the institutional level in the EHEA.

The Lisbon Recognition Convention: a practical tool for determining access

More than a political or legal obligation, the Lisbon Recognition Convention offers above all a very practical set of principles that fit the current reality of diversity in student mobility.

The core of the Convention is that the foreign qualification should be recognised unless the receiving institution can point to a substantial difference between the foreign qualification and the qualification required for access to the programme in question. There will always be differences between national qualifications, but the question is, will these be so substantial that the student is not likely to succeed in the goal for which recognition is sought? This approach does not only put the student at the centre, but its principles also have the quality of the classroom at heart. By applying the Convention correctly, institutions are able to efficiently create a pool of well-prepared international students.

Towards practical implementation

The current structure for the recognition of foreign qualifications is based on three pillars: political (the EHEA and more recently the European Commissions’ European Education Area), legal (the international treaty provided by the Lisbon Recognition Convention) and operational (the ENIC-NARIC Networks, which are the national information centres on recognition).

In the operational pillar, the 57 ENICs (the centres belonging to the European Network of Information Centres in the European Region) play an essential part, because they are tasked under the Lisbon Recognition Convention with its implementation in the national context. At the same time, recognition is organised differently in each country. This is also reflected in that the role, mandate and remit of ENIC-NARICs, and consequently their resources, vary per country.

Yet what actions can be taken to achieve further compliance with the Lisbon Recognition Convention in higher education institutions?

First, it is key to review national recognition infrastructures. National authorities committed to the implementation of the Lisbon Recognition Convention should check whether their recognition infrastructure allows for sufficient (and efficient) support of the Convention in higher education institutions. One way to start is to put all actors involved in recognition of foreign qualifications around the table – meaning ministries, ENIC-NARICs, accreditation organisations, students, rectors’ conferences and institutions – and map the national recognition infrastructure. A next step is reviewing how structural improvements can be made to support full implementation at national, regional and institutional levels.

Second, recognition procedures must be included as part of the internal quality assurance of the institutions. Standard 1.4 of the “Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area” (ESG) includes recognition as part of admissions. Key quality indicators include an information management system, internal feedback mechanisms (from faculty to admissions), and a procedure based on the Lisbon Recognition Convention.

Third, it is crucial to reach out to ENIC-NARIC centres for guidance. They can offer support on good practice developed in the networks to support implementation of the Lisbon Recognition Convention in higher education institutions. However, it is important to note that every ENIC-NARIC has a different remit and this will determine the extent to which the centre can provide assistance. In some countries, the associations of higher education institutions also play an important role in providing guidance on recognition to their members. At the European level, EUA plays this role as well, and is currently involved in creating the Academic Recognition Hub, which will gather all relevant resources on the topic through the Erasmus+ project Spotlight on recognition.

And fourth, it is necessary to seek structural collaboration with national peers. Recognition is specific to the national context and admissions officers from other institutions are the best (and only) peers with whom one can discuss new laws, policies or application trends. An efficient and successful way to organise such a discussion is to establish an admissions officer network. Another benefit is that it allows for an easier dialogue with other national stakeholders, which benefits the national recognition infrastructure as well.

Last but not least, recognition in the EHEA countries is facing two major changes in the education landscape: digitalisation of student data and flexible education paths. Implementation of the Lisbon Recognition Convention at the institutional level will be essential for smooth inclusion, which benefits of students, higher education institutions and education institutions. The “Spotlight on Recognition” project provides higher education institutions with all the practical tools to achieve this.

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