The Lisbon Recognition Convention (CoE 1997) is officially known as the Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region. It is an international convention laid out by the Council of Europe, in collaboration with UNESCO in 1997 and came into force in 1999. Wikipedia reports that as at 2012, the convention was ratified by the 47 member states of the Council of Europe except for Greece and Monaco. Non-member states such as Australia, US, Canada and New Zealand and a few others have also adhered to the convention. The convention is seen as a very important instrument to sustain the Bologna process, where the 47 member states pledged to reform their higher education systems in order to create convergence at the European level. The official higher education area was formed in March 2010 as main objectives to (1) facilitate mobility of students, graduates and higher education staff; (2) prepare students for their future careers and for life as active citizens in democratic societies, and support their personal development; and (3) offer broad access to high-quality higher education, based on democratic principles and academic freedom.
The UNESCO’s point with respect to the Convention relied on the need to better link the European Educational Systems within the two segment of Europe and to the outside world. Among other key arguments that were brought forward to support the convention proposal, was the rapid growth of private institutions imparting higher education on the global scene. Therefore the aim of the Convention will be to ensure that provision is adequately made for quality education and service, rather than discriminating between public and private institutions.
The fundamental rule governing the convention therefore lies on the recognition of degrees and periods of study unless the institution in charge of providing the recognition in a particular country can establish substantial differences and discrepancies from the norm. The Convention established two bodies, which oversee, promote and facilitate the implementation of the Convention:
- The Committee of the Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region, and
- The European Network of Information Centres on Academic Mobility and Recognition (the ENIC Network).
The ENIC network should not be confused with the NARIC (National Academic Recognition Centres) of European Countries. It is reported by a few sources such as the Council of Europe website, and Wikipedia that the ENIC network works closely with the NARIC network of the European Union. Together they form what is called the ENIC-NARIC network (http://www.eric-naric.net).
Arguing that the practice of recognition of qualifications had evolved over the past decade (1987-1997 period), the European Commission laid emphasis on the difference between the so-called notions of equivalence and the broader concept of recognition. Equivalence therefore relates to detailed comparison of curricula and lists of material studied to ensure they are equal in terms of content, level of study. Recognition refers to a broader analysis of the qualifications obtained, for e.g. establishing that a three-year post-secondary study in an approved tertiary education institution of country X is recognized as such in a different country Y. Article 13 of the explanatory notes of the convention further states that a "tendency has become apparent for formal international regulations to emphasize the procedures and criteria applicable to the process of recognition of foreign qualifications rather than to list or define degrees and diplomas that shall be recognized under the regulation".
The Convention refers to the assessment of individual qualifications to be a “written evaluation of, or statement on, the qualifications in question, and may be given for a variety of purposes, ranging from formal recognition to an informal statement on ‘what the qualification is worth’ with no further purpose”. The assessment has to be done by competent authorities that are defined as those who are legally empowered in the home country where the assessment is conducted to do so. A further statement refers to such ‘competent authorities’ to make decisions regarding recognition to be binding. The competent authority can be a Ministry, higher education institutions, associations or Government agencies who are officially empowered by law to act as official bodies for the recognition of qualifications.
One such inconsistency with respect to the Convention currently in practice especially in Europe is that assessment statements of individual qualifications often state that the decision is not binding on other institutions or employers who are free to accept or reject the assessment as these are based on expert ‘opinion’ and ‘judgment’. This type of inconsistency arises simply because the NARIC of different European countries have different roles as conferred to them by the Government or the rule of law in force. While, in the context of the convention, a ‘competent authority’ limits to the legal competency and does not include the ‘academic competence’ the problem with respect to bodies who are empowered to emit an ‘expert opinion’ after conducting an assessment might actually lie in the area of academic competence. A private company, running a Government agency under an outsourced contract will recruit its personnel as per its own practices. Therefore the concept of academic competence might become an issue for a body have legal competency to issue assessment of qualifications. Such an officer mandated by the private company to do so might hold a doctorate or is a graduate, but that officer might lack important knowledge and expertise in the field of higher education, comparative education and transnational education systems.
Any individual wishing to have an assessment of a foreign qualification is guaranteed the right to fair recognition as per the provisions of the convention. One such mechanism apart from the traditional issues of discrimination and equal treatment is the provision to be made by awarding institutions to adopt a transparent approach to give as much information as possible on the programmes of studies through the Diploma Supplement, referred to as the European Diploma Supplement in the Convention and the use of the credit system, the ECTS (European Credit Transfer System).
The Bologna process and the Lisbon Recognition convention have also been subject to criticisms from different European territories themselves especially with respect to the practicalities related to the implementation. While initial critiques suggested that the convention favored more the British system of education, it is also seen that the main inconsistency/impracticality for implementation also comes from the British Higher Education system. One such major difference in the British system is that holders of an undergraduate Bachelors degree can often join on a Doctoral programme directly without completing a Masters qualification. Furthermore a Masters program in the UK is generally a one-year program while if the credit system of the Bologna model were applied the Masters program of the UK would have normally taken more than a year to be completed. In the context of transnational education, a Masters degree for instance in India is recognized as a two-year full time course and the UK Masters would not be recognized as such. In the context of the Bologna process, therefore it is put forward that it is unclear if all UK master's qualifications are therefore equivalent to those from other countries that participate in the Bologna process. It is argued that a master's degree experience is required to train the student for their doctoral studies – both in practical techniques and enhanced knowledge of a field but the UK contradicts this argument.
The fundamental rule for recognition of a foreign qualification is the official recognition and status of the awarding body and the qualification in question in the country of origin by competent authorities like UGC for India, TEC for Mauritius, SAQA for South Africa and the Secretary of Public Education (SEP) for Mexico, just to name a few. However, in the context of a rapid changing world due to a proliferation of modern technologies and the phenomenon of globalization, there are constant new challenges (e-learning and distance education, branch campuses, franchise institutions and economic issues) that are cropping up and that needs to be dynamically addressed by regulators, providers and practitioners.
 Bologna Process: The European Area for Higher Education 1999-2010 – (http://www.eric-naret.net)
 Source: Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bologna_Process)