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Achieving and maintaining compliance with internationally accepted recognition procedures is a necessary task for higher education institutions. EUA Senior Adviser Howard Davies highlights rapid changes in the recognition landscape, why the recognition processes in place at institution level need to be kept in a state of readiness and how self-assessment can contribute to institutional capacity-building.

Decades of globalisation and widened participation have seen the recognition of academic qualifications emerge as a headline issue. But its familiarity to policy makers has not softened the harsh reality: for anyone wishing to follow a course of study in higher education, especially abroad, recognition is the key to their present and future livelihood. Crucial for the individual, it should also be a core priority for the institution.

Yet how can an institution know whether its recognition processes are reliable, fair, timely and transparent? The question is not simple, and the answer is complex. But reassurance is at hand. The “Spotlight on recognition” project has designed an institutional self-assessment tool which will support institutions in identifying shortcomings and putting remedies in place. Its recent launch is an excellent opportunity to reflect on the extent to which such tools are needed.

Logically, if not temporally, recognition precedes admission. It’s a necessary precondition of consideration for admission, but it doesn’t make admission automatic. This distinction is not always well understood on the ground. But it should be – because the two processes, even if in practice they can be simultaneous, respond to separate sets of operational criteria which academic and administrative staff need to understand and respect.

Even in systems where recognition is undertaken by national authorities or outsourced by the institution to external agencies, it is important that local academics and administrators are alert to the wider context influencing recognition procedures and decisions. Indeed, the recognition landscape becomes more complicated by the day. Even as policy makers strive to put in place the basic parameters of automatic recognition (but not admission!) at Bachelor, Master’s and Doctorate levels, the pace of change accelerates.

Embedding the basic principles of recognition to the point at which part of the procedure becomes automatic is a task which is nowhere near completion. And there are other items of unfinished business. Prior learning – formal, informal and non-formal – has long been recognisable, but the incomplete implementation of procedures across Europe saps efforts to widen participation. Recognisability is not the same as recognition and many institutions are aware that they have ground to make up.

For example, the recognition of the ‘qualifications of persons in refugee-like situations’, while now an established procedure backed up by the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees, is sadly yet to be implemented more widely.

And beyond, what does the future hold? The questions surrounding micro-credentials have been well aired, notably in the Microbol project. They concern definition, assignment to EQF level, accreditation, to what extent they can be assimilated into mainline Bologna qualifications as items of concurrent learning and how far they can be bundled to constitute an integrated Bachelor or Master’s degree. Questions posed, but as of yet unanswered by consensus-based regulatory practice. They may well prove to be a step change in recognition processes and in internal quality assurance.

Moreover, the wave of curricular revision driven by the green and digital imperatives will mobilise a multitude of micro-credential designers. Over ten years ago, a prescient Mario Monti called for the automatic recognition of green qualifications in the framework of the Directive on the Recognition of Professional Qualifications. But what is a green qualification and does it require its own recognition criteria? Perhaps, if there were to be green pathways, green placements, green accreditation bodies and green quality assurance agencies.

As for digital, Covid-19, the great game-changer, has reconfigured programme delivery systems, as well as accelerating the development of the digital Diploma Supplement and the European Student Card. The ever-expanding corpus of learning outcomes is being mapped by the ESCO project, using AI techniques to establish a living taxonomy of competences and occupations – further aligning higher education with labour market needs. Closer convergence of academic and professional recognition regimes, surely needed, will impact existing recognition procedures.

On the near horizon, Individual Learning Accounts are on the EU agenda. Already up and running in France, the French Presidency of the Council of the EU is keen to generalise its own good practice. To be sure, the Council Recommendation on Individual Learning Accounts addresses specifically the needs of the EU internal market in the field of Adult Education. But many HEIs are also Adult Education providers. The question of the transnational portability of the credit allocation and the funding is bound to arise if and when other member states, not to mention Bologna and third countries, put Individual Learning Accounts in place. So too is the question of the validation of the discrete parcels of learning. Much of the cross-border traffic is likely to be in micro-credentials, sharpening the urgency of widening the scope of recognition practice.  

It’s certain that the implications of these developments will be felt by the European Quality Assurance and Recognition System envisaged – for 2023 – by the European Commission in its Communication on a European Strategy for Universities. The Commission does not mince its words when it asks the higher education sector to “pull its weight”. At the same time, it alludes to its own permanent challenge: ensuring transparency, ease of recognition and the facilitation of mobility while respecting national competence in the field of higher education. It looks forward to the day when “the quality of qualifications is assured, the qualifications are digitised and recognised automatically across Europe, doing away with the bureaucracy that hinders mobility, access to further learning and training or entering the labour market”.

This is likely to be the day when micro-credentials exist in profusion, new professions generate new curricula and more versatile trans-binary pathways and national Individual Learning Account systems face growing demand for cross-border interfacing.

This near future promises developments that today await further definition. All the more important, then, for institutions to be in a state of readiness. Compliance and alignment with legal prescriptions and guidelines are of obvious importance for all HEIs. The requirements of the Lisbon Recognition Convention, the European Standards and Guidelines on Quality Assurance, and the national ENIC-NARIC centres need to be well understood at central and faculty levels.  

Compliance and alignment should be internally driven yet externally supported processes. A capacity for institutional introspection is required if HEIs are to ensure that their recognition processes are reliable, fair, timely and transparent. External actors can support HEIs in this endeavour with resources such as the "Spotlight on recognition" self-assessment tool.

An institution which misrecognises risks its reputation. Efficient self-assessment can help embed an infrastructure and a culture capable of agile and appropriate response to the demands of an uncertain future.


Howard Davies
European University Association

Howard Davies is a Senior Adviser on Higher Education Policy at EUA. He has participated in a number of EUA projects addressing issues of mobility, qualifications frameworks and the recognition of academic and professional qualifications. He holds a PhD from University College London and enjoyed a long career in UK higher education.

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