BM83: Resolution on the Development of Automatic Recognition Processes in Europe

25.11.2022
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ESU believes that recognition of qualifications and study periods is a fundamental right for students, irrespective of the scope of the recognition process: for continuing education or entering a labour market within another country. As highlighted on several other occasions, to have a fully-fledged European Higher Education Area (EHEA), the possibility of students having their studies recognised through a fair, free and timely procedure is a key enabler. In the last years, several developments have taken place in the field of recognition:

  • Within the European Education Area (EEA), a Council recommendation on automatic recognition has been adopted, pushing forward the political objective of seamless mobility within the EEA; 
  • A Global Convention on recognition of qualifications has been adopted by UNESCO as the first legally binding higher education-specific treaty at UNESCO-level, and it is close to becoming applicable by reaching the threshold of 20 countries ratifying the convention; 
  • A new (sub)regional treaty has emerged between the Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) and Baltic (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) states, deepening the mutual trust in each other’s qualifications but also inherently creating a new regime within the area covered by the Lisbon Recognition Convention.

Furthermore, the barriers faced by students fleeing the war in Ukraine when trying to have their own qualifications and study periods recognised in the European Higher Education Area, even though all states concerned are party to the Lisbon Recognition  Convention, have proven that more needs to be done to ensure, through comparability and compatibility, the trustworthy and sound procedures that would guarantee students’ right to recognition and timely and adequate recognition procedures.  

Recognition is considered one of the key commitments within the Bologna Process. It has a Thematic Peer Group B: Lisbon Recognition Convention (TPG-LRC) established at the Bologna Follow-Up Group level to support member states develop sound recognition procedures. However, the majority of EHEA member states have not submitted action plans which would outline their next steps in the area. This is contrary to the statement inserted in the 2020 Rome Communique, which shows that EHEA countries still need to work on implementing the LRC and especially on automatic recognition that should support the mobility of students, staff and graduates for studying, working and doing research. 

Since access to education is a human right, recognition is the procedural gateway to ensure it. Lacking fair recognition processes for all, not only the normative right of access to education is violated (also ignoring the measures that states need to take to grant access to this right), but several subjective (individual) rights (such as non-discrimination) are equally violated for a person that has de facto all the requirements (qualifications) to access further (higher) education, but de jure the qualifications cannot be used to be enrolled since they are not recognised because of bureaucratic obstacles. 

In the current context, ESU puts forward the following demands: 

1. Together with our National Unions of Students, we call on the member states within the European Higher Education Area to ratify the Global Convention on Recognition (GCR)

ESU advocates and our peers from across the world grouped in the Global Student Forum for ratifying the GCR as a tool to internationalise higher education and contribute to developing the European identity. The GCR brings innovations in recognition, such as explicit inclusion in the recognition processes of online learning, partial studies, recognition of prior learning, secondary school qualifications for access to higher education, and access for refugees without documents. Furthermore, it doesn’t affect the implementation of LRC or other recognition conventions; instead, it creates a global mechanism that will enhance the quality of recognition procedures.

2. Ensuring better links between Quality Assurance and Recognition procedures

Even though in some countries there is good cooperation established between the Quality Assurance agencies and the ENIC-NARICs, this is far from common across Europe. In some cases, this decouples the QA processes from the developments in the recognition field. Both external and internal QA should look into the institutional recognition procedures in order to emphasise the need to make the recognition procedures less bureaucratic, lengthy, unclear and more transparent. It’s crucial to create a mutual understanding and consistency in terms of the procedures, and QA has an important role in improving the transparency of recognition policies. ESU supports the current initiatives that aim to revise the European Recognition Manual and to provide additional support for ENIC-NARICs, and higher education institutions as a new step in developing a European understanding and approach to recognition. 

Based on the publication Bologna With Students Eyes 2020, it is important to note that the perceived transparency and fairness of the procedures have improved compared to the results of the preceding publication from 2018. Unfortunately, regarding the complexity of the procedures, there is no positive development. 

3. Adapting the recognition procedures to current developments in the higher education sector

The recognition procedures need to adapt to the underlying trends and characteristics of higher education, the object of recognition. In order to ensure the success of recognition procedures for micro credentials, other tools need to be consistently applied as well, including the QA of micro credentials, their place within the Qualifications Framework (both European and National) and the usage of ECTS. However, there are still no adopted policies for mainstreaming the recognition of micro credentials.  Recognition procedures are at the end of the ‘life cycle’ of a micro credential, since it happens after the micro credential has been obtained. Still, if their recognition is not facilitated by operational and well-constructed procedures, it can only create misunderstanding in students and systemic inconsistencies. Furthermore, the development of the recognition procedures for micro credentials should happen in a coordinated manner with the policies for recognition of prior learning, one of the areas in most need for improvement under the Bologna process, as seen from the students’ perspective.  

Secondly, despite recent developments, we highlight the need to increase the digitalisation of recognition procedures, both as a tool to enhance the user friendliness and decrease bureaucracy. 

4. The impact of the different layers of recognition agreements should be assessed based on the student rights-approach and putting the student in the centre

Currently, the European Commission is assessing the implementation of the 2018 Council Recommendation on automatic recognition. ESU believes automatic recognition should be a reality within the European Higher Education Area and not be confined to the EU level. We can see that some countries have not pushed forward the agenda of automatic recognition from the European policy to national legislative framework and practice in the present, although the underlying conditions for automatic recognition are in place. The tools exist (including ESG-compliant QA, the use of a three-cycle higher education system etc.) at the European level.

This is why ESU believes that the issues with the progress toward achieving automatic recognition are not conceptual. Still, the barriers lie in support of national and institutional bodies to achieve the agreed goals. Member States should understand that a European Education Area cannot be consistent without seamless mobility based on automatic recognition and invest resources into adapting legislation and supporting recognition bodies for the full implementation of automatic recognition and building mutual inter-institutional trust.  

The legislative framework is also one of the crucial issues for implementing LRC and automatic recognition, which is also highlighted in the 2020 Rome Communique as EHEA countries still need to work on the national legislative bases for better implementation of automatic recognition and LRC. The LRC Monitoring Report also highlights that the match of learning outcomes during the recognition process is not always considered and mentions the importance of time limits for recognition. Recommendations drawn out at the end of the monitoring report prove that LRC still waits to be fully implemented in member countries. However, the focus is slightly shifted to other agreements, such as Council’s Recommendation on promoting automatic mutual recognition. 

Secondly, we strongly call for a systematic analysis of how different layers of recognition agreements impact the recognition procedures. If, for some countries, the only regulation their legislation/procedures are based on is the Lisbon Recognition Convention (which is still not fully implemented), considering other documents and regulations to update and improve the current implementation state would be highly beneficial. Such documents include the GCR, the Council Recommendation on promoting automatic mutual recognition or even sub-regional agreements (the Baltics-Benelux treaty). Now we are finding ourselves in a complex environment where the EHEA states have agreed, individually or in an alliance, upon different agreements and recognition standards, further revealing the limits of some of the current settings – for example, if it had been clear that the automatic recognition would swiftly develop based on the Council recommendation on promoting automatic mutual recognition, the need for the subregional agreement would not be apparent. However, we can still learn a lot from these formed alliances. They become an example of good practice and increased transparency between EHEA countries, hopefully contributing to better recognition practices leading to borderless education wherever these regulations are applied. 

All this documentation is ultimately compatible and, in one way or another, pushes forward towards a more complex and in-depth view of recognition, which can improve the quality of the recognition process. However, we also highlight the risk of different procedures focusing on subregional cooperation instead of working towards a common EHEA approach. If, for the recognition procedures, the ‘deeper integration’ doesn’t affect the underlying principles at the European level (codified in LRC), copying these trends in other policy areas could undermine the coherence and a sense of shared priorities within the Bologna process. 

Countries need to develop free-of-charge recognition procedures, supporting everyone entering the labour market or education, and the duration of the process should not be more than 6 months. As monitoring of LRC shows, in most cases, recognition procedures are available only in the national language. ESU believes that recognition procedures should be transparent, public and available in at least two languages (national and English). These procedures could help EHEA countries achieve brain circulation instead of having brain gain and brain drain present in particular countries. Furthermore, all the rights of students and demands on recognition of full qualifications should apply as well as partial qualification recognition.  

5. Recognition procedures should be transparent, public and free for everyone

ESU believes the outcome and the success of all these agreements should be based on the increased accessibility and quality for students as beneficiaries of recognition procedures.  

Students should be at the centre of the recognition procedures in higher education, and policies must adapt to their specific needs. This year, even though the legislation was in place and the Council of Europe successfully pushed forward the European Qualification Passport for refugees as a tool to ensure the integration of Ukraine students in the HE of the countries Ukraine refugees fled to, several barriers limited the right of the students from Ukraine to recognition. ESU strongly believes that the barriers and shortcomings faced by these students should be a lesson that more focus should be put on ensuring the applicability of current stipulations in times of crisis. 

ESU believes that high-quality, transparent and fair recognition procedures play a crucial role in the smooth mobility of students and their progress in education or onto the labour market in their native or another country. EHEA countries need to extend the work to implement the procedures for automatic recognition better and especially using digital tools in this process. It is noteworthy that transparent and easy procedures are a matter of Quality culture that still needs to be fully implemented in line with ESG in all EHEA member states.

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