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Helene Peterbauer outlines what the entry into force of a treaty on automatic recognition between Benelux and Baltic countries means for universities both within and outside these regions, and asks whether it can spur progress across the European Higher Education Area.

The Benelux-Baltic Multilateral Treaty on the Automatic Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications has been hailed as a ‘milestone’ in European higher education development. Officially in force since 1 May 2024, it commits signatory countries to automatically recognising the level (bachelor’s, master’s, etc.) of higher education  qualifications issued by other signatory countries. To use an even shorter – and very popular – explanation of the concept of automatic recognition, it means ‘a bachelor is a bachelor is a bachelor’.

This is by no means a brand-new idea. The Benelux and Baltic regions each already had their own internal agreements on automatic mutual recognition of diplomas. Nevertheless, the Benelux-Baltic Treaty is truly a notable step towards realising the spirit of the Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Why? Because it cements the idea that higher education systems and the qualifications they award are different, but equal.

That said, the Treaty’s launch also carries bittersweet undertones, since all EHEA countries committed to realising automatic recognition in the Bucharest Communiqué back in 2012. Therefore, they should already have taken the necessary steps to do so, instead of letting the Benelux-Baltic vanguard blaze a trail on their own.

Still, the Treaty is certainly cause for celebration for students moving within these countries, because it means that they now have the legal right to have the level of their higher education qualification recognised. But what does this Treaty mean for universities?

Naturally, it is universities who conduct recognition procedures as part of their admissions procedures, thus the concept of automatic recognition affects how these procedures may be implemented. For the universities in the signatory countries the Treaty will hardly change much, since they will either simply be obliged to expand the same procedures they previously applied to their own region to qualifications from an additional region. Another realistic scenario is that in effect nothing at all changes, because these universities may already have applied de facto automatic recognition to countries outside their region, even without a legal obligation to do so.

Much more interesting are the potential effects on countries outside the Benelux and Baltic regions, and their universities. The Treaty is open to other countries within the European Higher Education Area. And even for those who do not join, it carries the promise of spreading knowledge of the effects of automatic recognition’s practical implementation. Albeit provided that the signatory countries not only keep their doors open to those who want to join, but also to those who want to get insights into the practice of automatic recognition.

This also raises fundamental questions about what automatic recognition is and what it is not, but also what it can help with and what it cannot help with. To dispel one of the most common misconceptions: automatic recognition is not automatic admission, as in obliging universities to automatically admit students to specific programmes. But it is also not automated recognition in the sense of a technologically supported process, for example in the form of an automatic authenticity check of background documents. Automatic recognition concerns only the level of qualifications – not more, not less.

Beyond these conceptual points, the efforts of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania will hopefully also shed more light on what universities’ admissions procedures look like with automatic recognition in place. Does automatic recognition decrease administrative effort and therefore the workload of university staff, as has been suggested in the past, or was this an overly optimistic assumption? It will also be interesting to see how student mobility between these countries develops.

Ultimately, a commitment to automatic recognition is also a commitment to the Bologna Process and its tools, since the former depends on the latter. In particular, automatic recognition requires a thorough implementation of the three-cycle system, quality assurance in line with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG), and national qualifications frameworks aligned with one or both of the two existing European-level qualifications frameworks. Adequate and thorough implementation of automatic recognition and the Bologna tools thus fuel each other in the form of a virtuous cycle. This alone should be reason enough for other countries and their higher education sectors to take note of developments in the Benelux and Baltic countries and follow up on their own promise to make automatic recognition of higher education qualifications a reality for all in the European Higher Education Area.  




Helene Peterbauer
European University Association.
Helene Peterbauer is a Policy Analyst for Institutional Development at the European University Association.n.

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