1999 Policy Paper “Recognition of Qualifications”

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There are three fundamental reasons for anybody to pursue education:

  • to develop and grow as an individual human being,
  • to develop as a responsible citizen in a democratic society, and
  • to be prepared for professional life.


ESIB – The National Unions of Students in Europe is an organisation which has existed

since 1982 to promote the educational, social, economic and cultural interests of students
at a European level towards all relevant organisations and institutions. ESIB currently has
35 member organisations from 29 countries. Through its member National Unions of
Students, ESIB represents over 6 million students, which means that ESIB represents the
majority of students in Europe. ESIB considers itself as an important stakeholder in
higher education because it is built through democratically elected national unions of
students who have relevance in shaping the national higher education policies. Therefore,
we are obliged to express our opinions on significant questions concerning students and
education.ESIB considers the issue of transnational recognition of qualifications as such a
significant topic. Recognition as an issue has emerged into the foreground because of
globalisation, increased mobility and the increased demand for mobility.


What is a qualification?

The term “qualification” can be generally defined as a measure of experience or
something acquired by experience and/or training. Education is one of the most important
ways of gaining qualifications in life. There are three fundamental reasons for anybody to
pursue education:

  • to develop and grow as an individual human being,
  • to develop as a responsible citizen in a democratic society, and
  • to be prepared for professional life. The priorities for individuals vary according to their political, social, and economic background and environment: gender, upbringing, etc.


One can define four basic types of qualification:

  • Basic taught education: written and oral expression, languages, basic mathematics and computing;
  • Specialist knowledge: academic specialisation, specific professional training;
  • Social skills: the ability to communicate and interact effectively with others;
  • Methodological skills: the ability for well-grounded critical analysis, setting a framework of reliable handling of information to act as responsible and active citizens and persons.

In the traditional education system most of these points should be covered by formal
education. Social skills, however, are usually also developed through extracurricular
activities and the informal education sector. These skills are always important for
personal development and life in a democratic society, and are also becoming
increasingly vital requirements on the labour market. For these reasons, the need for
informal education should also be taken into account within the formal education system.

When seeking employment, job applicants are often rejected on the grounds of being
“overqualified”. However, in the context of lifelong learning, taking into account that the
aim of education should also be to prepare the individual for life in society and to help
him or her develop as a human being, ESIB considers it impossible for anybody to be
truly “overqualified”.

Some “qualifications” are impossible to acquire through formal or informal education.
Attributes such as sex, colour, sexual orientation, disability, etc. should not be used as
reasons for qualification or disqualification. ESIB therefore reinforces its commitment to
promoting equal opportunities.

Harmonisation of Educational Systems

There is a discussion in some European countries to harmonise the architecture of
European higher education systems. The Sorbonne Agreement signed by the Ministers of
Education of Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and France proposes a “common
frame of reference”. The term “harmonisation” is not clearly defined yet, and ESIB
thinks that it is too early to take a stand in favour or against harmonisation. Although the
consequences are not clear yet, we can already point out some of its possible good
aspects and its potential dangers for students and academic institutions.

One advantage of harmonisation could be that it makes recognition smoother while also
facilitating student mobility. Moreover, it could help to facilitate and generalise common
credit systems like ECTS. Harmonised structures would allow an easier recognition of
degrees or parts of degrees, by HE institutions and employers throughout Europe. The
institutions and the employers would thereby know what kind of qualification a certain
person possesses, and it would be easier to make comparisons on international levels.

However, harmonisation of the architecture of studies can cause problems in several
aspects. ESIB therefore regrets that students were not included in the negotiations that
have already taken place. First of all, the harmonisation process should not be a reason
for shortening the length of studies by introducing various means of selection (numerous
clausus, new fees) after the first cycle. ESIB believes that access to education should be
one of the main priorities for all levels.

Structural harmonisation should not be a catalyst of the harmonisation of contents and/or
teaching methods. As the structure and the content of a study programme will always be
interlinked, it is difficult however, to see how a structural harmonisation can be made,
without resulting in some degree of content harmonisation. It should also be kept in mind
that harmonisation can pose a threat. This would go against national cultural specificity
and make the very reason for a student to study abroad obsolete. We should also make
sure that educational structures always serve the goals of educational programs.

Moreover, the structural harmonisation cannot be successfully completed if the financial
means, time and information are not given to HE institutions. ESIB strives for non-EU
countries to be consulted. The Central and Eastern European countries should be given
more time and financial help to deal with these reforms. It is also essential that
universities and student bodies inside universities give their opinion and input.

The transition between former and new degrees brings up the problem of the acceptance
of these new degrees by collective work agreements. The former qualifications should
not be devaluated by this process, either. It is important that individual thought and
critical analysis are maintained. Employer’s recognition is vital but should not be allowed
to dictate the future of HE. In case harmonisation of study time leads to longer study
programs, it should be ensured that the financial social support for students is also
extended. Concerning the harmonisation of teaching languages, ESIB believes that
students should be encouraged to study foreign languages and be given the opportunity to
also follow courses in other languages than their own.

The perspective of the harmonisation of European higher education systems could be a
further step towards a better recognition of qualifications throughout Europe. Without
doubt the concept of harmonisation will be further developed in the coming years.

However, the interests of the students must be represented at every step towards
harmonisation onto the implementation process.

Recognition of parts of studies/ECTS

ESIB is in favour of an increase in student mobility. ECTS could be a useful tool in
encouraging more students to go abroad in the frame of the existing mobility programmes
as well as outside of these programmes (i.e. free-movers). The European Credit Transfer
System (ECTS) is a tool to improve student mobility in Europe. ECTS was launched and
is promoted by the European Commission. By pre-recognition which ECTS provides, the
students are guaranteed that they will get recognition for the courses which they pass
when studying abroad. Even though ECTS could be very useful, its system is facing some
problems due to the expansion of ECTS and the need for a broader future applicability.

ESIB expresses its concern over the “relative grade system” provided by ECTS as that
places the individual learning process out of focus. There is a need to look for other ways
of improving recognition of the courses and institutions in order to stimulate a broader
network, to bring about changes in the participation rate of HE institutions, and also
because of the changing policies within countries.

For every student attending higher education it is of vital importance to get every part of
their education recognised internationally as well as nationally. This has become vital due
to the urgent need of freedom in choice of fields of study, the promotion of mobility, and
the ability to meet national demands of progress. To assure this pre-recognition of the
smaller parts of studying, we find the methods of pre-recognition in ECTS very positive.

Individual pre-recognition provides the student with the safety and certainty of
recognition. This then allows the student to focus on the actual field of study rather than
having to concentrate on the technicalities of the structure during the courses at the
visited institution or after returning to the home institution. In order to create the basis of
mutual trust and confidence towards recognition, the demands stated by the participating
institutions should focus on the quality of education rather than strict demands of
similarities in content.

A need for further transparency of ECTS is essential. Transparency of the system should
be encouraged in order to make all students familiar with the ECTS system (including the
students who do not plan to go abroad). The ECTS information package is the essential
tool to give information to students who want to go study at a foreign HE institution.

ESIB is satisfied with the structure of the information package, and thinks that it is
important to keep evaluating the content of the information with the students’ input after
having their courses attended. On the other hand, there is now so much information
available that there is an information excess. Therefore, ESIB urges to use the
possibilities of information technologies to make a transparent system, in which it is easy
for students to find the information they need and to be able to compare the different
courses and institutions. Students should be involved in building such a system.

Furthermore, transparency of the system is also needed for academic staff since they
should know what ECTS is in order to raise an attitude of mutual trust and confidence.
Transparency is also necessary to promote the internationalisation of HE. In the field of
recognition and especially recognition of parts of the studies, ECTS promotes mobility.

To ensure quality of education, other systems will also need to be developed in the future.
All stakeholders in HE are responsible to make sure that students attending courses
abroad are not disadvantaged when meeting the final terms to earn a qualified, recognised
degree. From this point of view, students can pursue all parts of studies at different
institutions as long as one of the institutions is responsible for the overall programme of
the student.

ESIB demands that the position of the student who earns a degree be strengthened.
Students are at the moment dependent on the co-ordinators and the agreements made
between HE institutions. If a student wants to take a course on which there is no
agreement between the home and the visited institutions, s/he has the right to get these
credit points accepted as well. If students do not get their credit points recognised, they
should be able to go into appeal. ECTS should be developed into a system which gives
the individual student at all European higher education institutions the right to get full
recognition on their achievements abroad.


Recognition of Diplomas

Besides recognition of parts of studies, the recognition of diplomas has also become a
matter of great importance in the sphere of higher education. As mobility increases and
more people seek education and employment opportunities in foreign countries,
qualifications need to be recognised everywhere. Diploma recognition should be
regulated in order to meet the needs of graduates in a globalised and increasingly flexible
labour market.

Two kinds of diploma recognition should be distinguished: academic recognition and
professional recognition. Academic recognition of diplomas refers to the process when a
diploma issued by one HE institution is recognised by another. It is usually sought as a
basis for access to further or new studies at the second higher education institution.
Professional recognition of diplomas is the recognition of HE qualifications as a basis for
launching or continuing a professional career. It gives the holder of the qualification the
corresponding professional status and the right to practice.

ESIB believes that the basic rights of students concerning recognition of diplomas are the
right to a fair recognition of their qualifications using transparent, coherent and reliable
recognition procedures considered within a reasonable time limit. Recognition should be
granted unless the competent recognition authority can prove there is substantial
difference between the qualification for which recognition is sought and the
corresponding qualification of the host country. In case of rejection, clear reasons for
denial should be stated. Applicants also should have the right to appeal the recognition
decision. Since the basic rights described are stated in the Council of Europe/UNESCO
Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications Concerning Higher Education in the
European Region adopted in Lisbon on 11th April 1997, ESIB calls upon all the signing
Parties to ratify the Convention.

The aforementioned Convention refers to Revised Diploma Supplement, designed as an
administrative annex to a diploma, in order to describe studies pursued by the holder of
the diploma. It contains information about the type and contents of the degree awarded,
as well as data on the issuing institution, and the educational system of the country in
question. It is ESIB’s conviction that the Revised Diploma Supplement should be
implemented at all higher education institutions in all countries bound by the Convention.

We believe that the Revised Diploma Supplement will be a successful tool in the process
of diploma recognition, as shown during pilot-projects launched under CoE/UNESCO
and the PHARE programme.

The diplomas earned through courses of open and distance learning (ODL) need also to
be fully recognised. Students should be involved in the implementation of recognition
processes. ESIB acknowledges the advantages of distance learning in the increasing
flexibility of choice of educational programmes and their contents. It does not only mean
that the students are able to study while working, it also offers the possibility of gaining
access to fields of study that would not be available in their local area. ESIB believes in
free access to everyone, and through ODL, greater access can be achieved. Nevertheless,
ESIB also points out that ODL can not be seen as a replacement of the traditional system
of HE.

ESIB will assist all relevant student organisations and authorities in obtaining
information on the CoE/UNESCO Convention and the Revised Diploma Supplement.
Information on diploma recognition should be available to all students. ESIB will provide
them with access to this information. ESIB, by means of established contacts, will
promote the co-operation between student organisations, employers’ organisations, trade
unions and national academic recognition information centres (the ENIC/NARIC
networks) in the field.



ESIB considers the issue of recognition of qualifications and its more specific aspects
outlined above to be of utmost importance for students in Europe. ESIB will take a proactive
approach in initiating debates on the issue. It will actively take part in emerging
and ongoing discussions on the subject and will make sure that the voice of students is
heard and their rights are guaranteed.


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