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Recognition of diplomas and study periods: Two ways to make it really work across Europe

Recognition of study and qualifications are key for people to move freely to study and work in Europe. However there are challenges to get recognition properly working. EUA’s Tia Loukkola addresses two solutions that could make the existing ambitions related academic recognition a reality.

The education ministers of EU member states adopted a Council recommendation on 26 November 2018 to facilitate recognition of diplomas. This recommendation underlines how education is key to the EU’s goals to further equal opportunities, concretely through promoting automatic recognition of diplomas and learning periods abroad. This is all part of a greater ambition of the European Commission to establish a European Education Area by 2025.

Recognition is clearly an important topic in the EU as student mobility is one of the great success stories of European integration. It takes recognition of study and qualifications for people to move freely to study and work. However, without proper recognition of diplomas and study periods abroad, this success is hindered, leaving much work to be done towards a uniform Europe of learning.

At the European University Association (EUA), we welcome the recommendation on promoting automatic recognition, but we also note that it mainly re-states the existing commitments and shows that more than two decades after the Lisbon Recognition Convention, we still have not quite implemented what was agreed.

Why is it so difficult to get recognition properly working? There are at least two issues that need to be tackled to make the existing ambitions related academic recognition a reality.

First, a clear separation needs to be made between the “recognition for access to further education” and “admission for further studies”. The two are continuously mixed up, or the difference is not made explicit, both at the policy level and in recognition procedures. In fact, sometimes qualifications are recognised (making one eligible for access), without granting the right to enrol (meaning admission is denied). The underlying justifications can be many, from lack of resources to take on more students, to issues with the language knowledge of the applicant.

The reason for the confusion can sometimes be found in the design of admission regulations for those who want to further their studies. Especially in higher education systems in which universities cannot select their students and limit the size of the student body by using specific admission criteria related to whether the candidate has the ability to be successful at the university.

To avoid this, national authorities should develop admission and recognition regulations so that they allow for a clear distinction of the two processes and rely on specific admission criteria, where needed, rather than using recognition as proxy.

The second issue to tackle is the need for more attention to capacity-building at the institutional level and to better understand why various European projects (often co-funded by the European Commission) do not seem to have had an impact on institutional practices.

According to the 2018 Bologna Implementation Report, higher education institutions continue to be responsible for making recognition decisions for academic purposes in 39 higher education systems in the European Higher Education Area. Nevertheless, recent EUA work shows that there are cases in which the university staff that processes applications for recognition lack knowledge on the expectations set out by the Lisbon Recognition Convention. In some cases, the applications are handled in an ad hoc manner by academics and professionally trained staff is lacking. In many higher education institutions, the training and capacity-building for those dealing with these issues is missing.

In this vein,a recent impact analysis of ENIC/NARIC centres and networks, the bodies responsible for information provision on recognition at the national level, found that while the participating ENIC/NARIC centres were committed to the Lisbon Recognition Convention principles in their work, many institutions working with them found that the support provided was not sufficient and practices between centres varied considerably. The conclusion therefore was that ENIC/NARIC networks and centres should pay constant attention to the needs of higher education institutions.

The Council recommendation promises to “promote mutual learning and exchange of good practices and cooperation between Member States and with stakeholders, recognition authorities and international organisations.” In addition, a new peer-support mechanism in the Bologna Process has been launched this autumn and is expected to involve higher education institutions in more meaningful participation on how to implement recognition in line with the Lisbon Recognition Convention. This means that the time is right to keep promises made and take action to address the nuts and bolts of recognition.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Tia Loukkola

Tia Loukkola is the Director of the EUA Institutional Development unit. She is in charge of a variety of EUA’s activities dealing with improving and monitoring the quality of universities and their educational mission, as well as specific topics including quality assurance, recognition, rankings and learning and teaching.

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