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European countries have made strides in establishing the right framework conditions to facilitate the recognition of qualifications. However, as this University World News article points out, there is still work to be done to align national legislation to the Lisbon Recognition Convention.

In the more than two decades since UNESCO and the Council of Europe presented the Lisbon Recognition Convention, European countries have made considerable strides in establishing the right framework conditions to facilitate the recognition of qualifications.

The ENIC-NARIC Networks have been established as a network of information centres on recognition in the European region and the national legislation of signatory countries has been adapted to align with the convention.

As highlighted in the 2020 Bologna Process Implementation Report, this latter point still has areas for improvement due to the nature of the Lisbon Recognition Convention, which implies a “paradigm shift […] in the legal framework governing recognition”.

Learner-centred approach

The most crucial characteristic of the Lisbon Recognition Convention is its learner-centred perspective.

This notion was recently backed by Luca Lantero, the director of the Italian ENIC-NARIC centre CIMEA (the Information Centre on Academic Mobility and Equivalence) and the president of the Lisbon Recognition Convention Committee, at the final conference of the Erasmus+ co-funded project “Thematic Peer Group on the implementation of the Lisbon Recognition Convention in EHEA countries” (TPG-LRC).

At the conference, Lantero stressed that fair recognition must be considered as a person’s right and a new culture and a community around this must be supported by all actors involved in recognition.

The convention stipulates that a foreign qualification must be recognised unless the recognising authority, which in most cases is the higher education institution to which the applicant is seeking access, can demonstrate that the foreign qualification is substantially different from a national qualification that would grant access to the desired learning activity (typically an academic programme).

What is a substantial difference?

The convention does not, however, define exactly what a substantial difference is – only the more recent Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education takes this step – nor does it provide examples of such differences. In practice, there are varying interpretations of the term ‘substantial differences’ across countries, as well as a good deal of uncertainty among potential applicants.

The TPG-LRC project set out to help tackle this challenge by publishing a guidance document entitled Substantial Differences: A glimpse of theory, practice and guidelines. The document aims to contribute to the discussion on how to categorise the different types of substantial differences and to support higher education institutions in understanding whether a difference or a set of differences should be considered substantial.

It also reiterates the need for a case-by-case approach to determine the existence of a substantial difference, which puts the individual learner firmly at the centre of the recognition process.

In this context it is important to highlight, though, that ‘case-by-case’ is not synonymous with ‘unstructured’. The guide on substantial differences recommends the use of the five elements of a qualification – level, workload, profile, learning outcomes and quality – to classify and evaluate a qualification.

A fair assessment

Another crucial precondition for fair, learner-centred recognition processes is that the learners themselves are aware that they have the right to receive a fair and transparent assessment of their qualifications.

At the final conference of the TPG-LRC project, Jakub Grodecki, the vice-president of the European Students’ Union, recalled that the social dimension of education is at the heart of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and the Bologna Process and linked this perspective to the need for well-functioning recognition processes, which are the basis for inclusive and equitable higher education across borders.

To help ensure that students are informed about the existence of the Lisbon Recognition Convention, the TPG-LRC project has published a leaflet for students entitled Will my Qualification be Recognised? Golden rules on academic qualification recognition for students in the European Higher Education Area.

The leaflet, which is also available in the form of a video, provides basic information for students about their right to fair and transparent assessment of their qualifications, alongside five key things to know when aiming to have a qualification recognised.

The other side of the coin is the need for higher education institutions to provide accurate, up-to-date and transparent information to potential applicants on how to initiate a recognition procedure and the steps involved. This is not only an obligation that the Lisbon Recognition Convention firmly places on higher education institutions as the key party involved in recognition processes, but it is also in the institutions’ best interest.

Clear information

As Tia Loukkola, deputy secretary general at the European University Association, highlighted at the final TPG-LRC project conference, internationalisation and mobility will remain at the core of the agenda and on the side of higher education institutions, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

This implies that smooth recognition procedures will continue to be an aspect of higher education institutions’ appeal to students from abroad. They can most visibly enhance this by paying particular attention to the information they provide to (potential) applicants for recognition.

To support institutions in this, the TPG-LRC project published Information Provision on Recognition of Qualifications. A practical guide for higher education institutions, which contains recommendations, practical tips and a short list of self-assessment questions on how to provide relevant, accurate and targeted information on the recognition of qualifications.

Room for optimism

Looking ahead, the coming years will be crucial for countries and other actors in higher education to put action behind their commitments and build on the progress already made. For higher education institutions, this means an enhanced focus on the provision of information to applicants and training to their staff.

From the perspective of the ENIC-NARIC Networks, the continued promotion of the Lisbon Recognition Convention in the national contexts and the strengthening of national infrastructures will be “a key challenge”, as highlighted by Jenneke Lokhoff, the president of the ENIC-NARIC Networks, during the conference.

These continued efforts to implement the very basic principles of the Lisbon Recognition Convention might, however, receive a boost from recent developments that are part of a broader innovation drive in higher education.

The Bologna Process Rome Ministerial Communiqué, published in November 2020, sets the way ahead for fair recognition of qualifications in a number of dimensions, such as mobility of staff and students, quality, ethics, transparency and integrity, flexible and open learning paths, including those leading to micro-credentials, digitalisation, qualification frameworks, automatic recognition of academic qualifications and periods of study within the EHEA and practices to ensure fair recognition of qualifications held by refugees, such as the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees.

Speakers at the final project conference were optimistic vis-à-vis the prospect that the current move towards increased cross-border and European-level digital infrastructures, as well as the rise of micro-credentials, would help to give centrality once more to the basic conditions that are needed to make recognition procedures in line with the Lisbon Recognition Convention a reality: transparency, trust and a flexible, learner-centred attitude.


This article was first published by University World News on 19 June 2021.


Helene Peterbauer
European University Association

Helene Peterbauer is a Policy Analyst in the EUA Institutional Development Unit where she focuses on learning and teaching, as well as academic recognition. Prior to joining EUA, she was a pre-doc assistant and lecturer at the University of Vienna.

Chiara Finocchietti

Chiara Finocchietti is deputy director of CIMEA.

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