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As learning pathways are increasingly international, the recognition of qualifications and credits obtained abroad is a key issue for countries and higher education institutions. Sebastian Bruque from the University of Jaén offers the Spanish and European perspective, outlining the various cases requiring recognition and priority actions needed for fair recognition procedures to become a reality.

International student mobility and, as a consequence, the recognition of their studies in one country by an institution in another country has been a constant concern within higher education throughout the 21st century. This concern has grown since the large-scale institutionalisation of international mobility with programmes such as Erasmus+. 

Moreover, focusing attention on academic recognition is both necessary and pertinent, given the economic and personal repercussions that transcend the academic domain, especially in this globalised age. The transfer of talent and improved living conditions of thousands of people resulting from the opportunity to be trained at a global level and, above all, to exercise their professions on the basis of that international training, underline the importance of recognition as a factor of economic growth, social stability and educational equity.

One key challenge that usually arises when institutions deal with recognition is taxonomy, meaning the classification of situations in which the applicants request recognition of their previous educational path, either in full or in part. Taxonomy is not a trivial matter, since, depending on this classification, the task of recognition acquires a different nature and, therefore, requires different solutions.

The classification of academic recognition is threefold, distinguishing between recognition of complete degrees, recognition of credits in mobility programmes and recognition of credits to be transferred to other institutions in order to complete a degree.

In Europe, there is already extensive experience, accumulated over 30 years and through more than nine million participants, in the recognition of credits in international mobility programmes, notably Erasmus+. There are also many examples of credit recognition through bi- or multilateral mobility programmes on almost every continent. In most cases, effective information and regulatory support systems have been established to facilitate and underpin the recognition of this type of mobility.

Greater challenges are linked to the recognition of parts of a degree so that students can complete their studies in another, international institution (credit transfer) and, finally, to the recognition of complete degrees. In Europe, the greatest efforts as well as the clearest guidelines from the institutional level are directed at precisely these two cases, thanks in part to the Bologna Process and the development of the European Higher Education Area.

The recognition systems for credit transfer and degrees are based on the principles of the Lisbon Recognition Convention and its subsidiary texts. The Council of the European Union, in the recommendation issued on 26 November 2018, also focuses on this type of recognition, stating that, by 2025, the relevant regulatory changes must be in place with the intention of definitively implementing automatic recognition of qualifications and learning periods within the European Union. Finally, the same principles that have guided the signatory states of the Lisbon Recognition Convention have also been included in the “Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education”, approved in November 2019 by UNESCO.

The harmonisation of European legislation with a view to achieving full recognition of degrees should include a series of guidelines that could be summarised with the following objectives:

  • recognise credits or degrees obtained at institutions accredited by national or regional agencies, listed in the official EQAR register;
  • recognise the special status of degrees that lead to regulated professions, provided that they have this consideration in the country that has issued the degree. In these cases, institutional accreditation issued by agencies listed in the EQAR registry would also be required;
  • enable automatic recognition of joint degrees resulting from intra-European cooperation, such as, but not restricted to, joint degrees derived from alliances of the European Universities Initiative and provided that the degree has been accredited by an EQAR-listed agency, following the guidelines already included in the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes;
  • establish flexible ways of recognition of outcomes of study periods or degrees from institutions accredited by agencies not listed in EQAR. In these cases, an accelerated recognition pathway should be established as long as there is the support of quality labels or quality assurance agencies of recognised international prestige; for example, those issued by EURACE, EUROINF or ABET in engineering, EQUIS, AMBA or AACSB for business and management education labels.

These principles are already being taken into account, partially or completely, in certain legislative actions initiated in several European countries. In the case of Spain, a twofold reform process has been launched. This process includes, on the one hand, a review of the procedures of recognition of degrees obtained abroad, by means of which a fast track has been established for degrees issued by alliances within the European Higher Education Area and another for degrees issued by non-European universities with a long history of degree recognition in the past. On the other hand, a procedure effectively introducing automatic recognition has been established for degrees resulting from the European University Initiative or through joint degrees resulting from alliances between two or more universities located in the European Higher Education Area that have been accredited by EQAR-listed agencies.

To sum up, Europe’s universities must continue to work, from a European but also a global viewpoint, to achieve automatic recognition of qualifications and learning periods abroad. The academic, social and individual repercussions, which lie behind the objectives of automatic recognition, make educational agents, governments and the European Union place this problem among their educational priorities. The much-desired free movement of talent within the European Union, as well as to and from third countries, requires consistent, determined and courageous action.

A related article by the same author was published by University World News on 12 June 2021.


Sebastian Bruque
University of Jaén

Sebastian Bruque is Vice President for Internationalisation at the University of Jaén in Spain. He is also Professor in Management (POM and international management); author or co-author of more than 50 papers in internationally-recognised journals; a visiting scholar in universities in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Slovenia, the United States and India, and Commissioner at the European Council for Business Education.

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