Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Lisbon Recognition Convention and the Bologna Process

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[1] 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.[2]

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. 


[1] Bologna Process: The European Area for Higher Education 1999-2010 – (http://www.eric-naret.net) 

[2] Source: Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bologna_Process)

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Comparative Education, Recognition and Equivalence, and Internationalization in a Competing Global Village


The world in the 21st Century is commonly referred to as a global village. Transnational communication through advanced digital and high-speed data networks has transformed the way that citizens live, study, work and do business in the modern world. The Internet through the information superhighway has caused a radical shift in the virtualization of many existing aspects of humanity.

Education, more precisely Higher Education has been seen as the main driver for development in the developed countries and as the key for ensuring the future of developing countries. However, the other side of the coin is in fact also a bit disconcerting for many. Education has become a business, and a lucrative one. Education is indeed a business, which so far, has been flourishing for mostly developed countries, as they were the role models for guaranteeing the success at an individual and global level, thus forging a huge market in the developing or under-developed countries. Many young citizens of those countries, either want to explore greener pastures outside their country and those who cannot afford to leave their home nation, will prefer to spend their money on foreign institutions being locally represented under the impression, and very often illusion that they are receiving quality education. 

Quality education is a term that was often associated to high-ranking universities and/or to universities located in the developed world such as the UK, Germany, France, Australia and the US. Europe and the US used to be the dominant territories for quality education and over the past decades countries in Asia like Singapore, India (a few institutions) and China have joined in the competition. Quality education is also intrinsically linked with culture and civilization. The Western civilization is seen as liberal, democratic and advanced. Therefore the global perception and the socio-political propaganda will be geared towards giving their education system a sense of superiority over others. They become the ideals of those living in a more traditional civilization. A clear example is the Middle-East countries like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other oil-rich Gulf countries where western qualifications are highly valued for high responsibility posts in major sectors of the economy.

With the advances of the Internet and the globalization phenomenon, the concepts of internationalization of education and trans-border education have taken a different dimension. Instead on only attracting foreign students on local territories, or setting up physical branch campuses in foreign land, many higher education institutions are now providing distance education courses through the open and online mode of delivery. While trans-border higher education is often projected to be a means of opening access to higher education, private and for-profit organizations are the promoters of such initiatives with the exception of a few such as the VUSSC project of the Commonwealth of Learning. However, while opening access is key to the idea, initiatives like the VUSSC have struggled to provide a reliable framework for the recognition and accreditation of such models. The emerging concept of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) as well as virtual movements like the University of the Indian Ocean or the OER University still have to make a bold statement. Most reports on trans-border higher education are conducted mainly by organizations with the roots in Europe such as OECD, and a significant emphasis is often laid against the provision of low quality education and this often creates the perception that trans-border education where the sending countries are developing ones, more caution should be exercised. 

However, it is not news that most of the so-called diploma and degree mills as well as accreditation mills exist in the US and Europe regions. Reports suggest that in the UK the prevalence of the so-called mills is very high. A diploma mill is basically a fake university that sells diplomas and degrees and other qualifications either by fooling its customers into thinking they are legitimate or by doing so with the full consent of the customer. Accreditation mills therefore are created to accredit those institutions thereby creating a perception that they are legitimate. Many people confuse diploma mills with fully legitimate institutions operating mainly in the education domain with the aim of focusing mainly on their profit rather than on the quality of education that is dispensed. They associate the term ‘mill’ with the factory concept where graduates are just being produced for the sake of producing them. This is an erroneous definition and interpretation of the term diploma or degree mill. 

Modern connectivity provided by telecommunications networks and web platforms has opened up the competition globally and the key players in US and Europe have now to face competition from smaller but recognized higher education institutions from many countries of the World. Open Universities are growing everywhere and traditional, small, less reputed private universities are exploring the avenues, grabbing a significant market share by providing recognized and affordable ‘products’ and ‘services’ to a growing demand from the middle-class ‘consumer’. The key is no longer quality education or prestige of the institution but flexibility, affordability and recognition. The reality is also obvious. In the UK for instance, many universities are autonomous but private universities, although they are regulated by Government. Similarly for instance in India, many universities are private institutions but offering good quality products and are officially recognized. The Open University of Malaysia for example is a privately owned institution while in Mauritius the Open University of Mauritius is a public institution. On the other hand, the Open University of the UK is a prestigious University which is not affordable to everyone especially international students from the third-world. 

The key is that private institutions in whatever jurisdiction they are found are privately owned entities and their mission is to do business. Many of them are not-for-profit organizations but this is not really the issue as the key is that a business is a business. The business model might be different and the target is the same – it is not necessarily profitability but survival. For higher education systems, the issue might be even bigger relating directly to a country’s economy. For example, UK is one of the largest exporters of higher education, which means that this is an important sector of its economy. 

In most countries, there are government authorities that are responsible for the regulation, accreditation and overall control of the higher education sector and providers. In India, the University Grants Commission (UGC) looks at the regulation of mainly private providers, and in Mauritius the equivalent entity is the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC). In South Africa, the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) looks at higher education sector regulation and recognition. While the UGC, TEC and SAQA are all Government bodies that oversee the higher education sector in the respective countries, the western world such as the UK and the US have a different system where degree granting status for institutions are looked at by specific bodies, while recognition and accreditation follow a more open model. These differences often lead up to confusion on the real status of an institution especially in those countries and therefore can lead to problems being faced by students who embark on studies with these institutions. Therefore the terms autonomy, recognition, accreditation and equivalence can have different meanings in different parts of the world especially with respect to private institutions. The European region has established the so-called ENIC networks and in the UK, the body that is empowered by Government to provide expert advice on recognition and comparability of qualifications is the UK NARIC. 

However the UK NARIC is managed and owned in fact by a private company called ECCTIS Ltd. Their role is different from that of the TEC in Mauritius for instance, which is the sole Government Authority in Mauritius regarding Tertiary Education provision. It is clearly mentioned that they provide expert advisory opinions, which is not necessarily binding on organizations especially UK Universities that are autonomous bodies and that make their own decisions on admissions and equivalence of qualifications of foreign students for instance. The US adopts a more liberal approach through independent Credential Evaluation services that form part of recognized bodies with the Government such as NACES. Basically the reliability of an evaluation conducted by a private entity affiliated with NACES will be positively looked upon. Again those are trusted expert opinions and are not biding on any institution with respect to recognition and equivalence.

Comparative education is also a concept that has its root from the origins of transnational and trans-border education where educational systems from different territories are examined and compared for equivalence. Comparative Education encompass however a broader spectrum of educational issues inherent in different cultures and has been established as a full fledge academic field of study. There is widespread global consensus that countries should engage into a facilitation process with respect to the recognition and equivalence of foreign qualifications in the best interest of students. 

The Lisbon Recognition Convention was elaborated by the Council of Europe and UNESCO in 1997 and it stipulates that qualifications of students obtained in a particular country and formal study must be recognized unless substantial differences can be proved by the institution that is charged with recognition. This convention is in line with the Bologna process initiated in 1999 where the aim was to create a European Higher Education area. While non-member states of the Council of Europe such as the US, Australia and Canada have also adhered to the Lisbon Recognition Convention, critics from academics and other institutions have termed the convention and the Bologna process as an initiative to protect Europe’s economic interests in Higher Education through an enlargement of scale of the European systems of higher education, in order to enhance its 'competitiveness' by cutting down costs.