The recognition of studies and qualifications in higher education: a challenge for the twenty-first century - Dimitri Beridze
Less than two years separate us from the next century and a new millennium. The students of today, some 80 million young women and men, will be the main actors, designers and decision-makers of the society of tomorrow. How do they want to see this future world and their future society? The World Conference on Higher Education to be held by UNESCO from 5 to 9 October 1998 in Paris, France will provide an opportunity to address this major issue.
On the threshold of the twenty-first century, humanity is witnessing the development of a global society, one important consequence of which is the ever-increasing mobility of people. More than 1.5 million students are studying abroad today and their number will increase further in the coming years. In addition, virtual academic mobility is rendered possible by new information technologies.
Knowledge is universal, a part of the heritage of mankind. However, in reality, access to knowledge and learning has not always been easy. Because knowledge is constantly being developed and technologies being renewed, their acquisition and mastery are indispensable for students. Academic mobility aims to facilitate this important task and can be encouraged by the mutual recognition, by institutions and authorities throughout the world, of studies, qualifications and skills obtained in other countries.
UNESCO's Medium-Term Strategy (1996-2001) fully endorses the promotion of activities pertaining to mobility and recognition of qualifications. Academic mobility becomes the essential tool to implement the four principles of education identified by the report of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be. The achievement of academic mobility, also considered one of the basic pillars of academic freedom, is largely dependent on the recognition of the status of teachers in higher education and their basic, necessary working conditions. Therefore, the General Conference of UNESCO at its twenty-ninth session adopted the Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel (11 November 1997).
UNESCO's action in the field of academic mobility is almost as old as the Organization itself. Over the last fifty years, UNESCO has been collecting information and carrying out studies on issues of mobility and the recognition of qualifications. Study abroad, published biennially since 1948, is one of the most comprehensive international guides to scholarships and courses available in all post-secondary academic and professional disciplines. Seven titles in the series Studies on international equivalencies of degrees appeared between 1969 and 1981 and led to the preparation of the World guide to higher education. This book is now in its third edition and is unique in its coverage of national higher education systems.
UNESCO's interest in academic mobility by all Member States goes back to 1964. At that time the Executive Board of UNESCO, at its sixty-sixth session, requested the Director-General to submit a preliminary evaluation of the technical and legal aspects of the matter, including the advisability of elaborating an international convention or a recommendation on the equivalence of secondary school-leaving certificates and of university diplomas and degrees. Since that date, the concept and nature of the action to be followed by UNESCO has been repeatedly reviewed by successive sessions of UNESCO's governing bodies. While maintaining the ultimate objective—namely the elaboration of an international standard-setting instrument—but keeping in mind the various difficulties involved, Member States reached the conclusion that the matter could be approached more successfully at the regional level. Consequently, six regional instruments of the convention type were adopted during the 1970s and the early 1980s, beginning with the Regional Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Diplomas and Degrees in Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (June 1975), followed over the next ten years by five similar conventions covering all regions of the world.1
Moreover, in a move towards a single universal convention, the General Conference of UNESCO at its twenty-seventh session held in 1993 took a major decision in the field of higher education by adopting an international Recommendation on the Recognition of Studies and Qualifications in Higher Education. This instrument aims to promote wider access to educational resources worldwide in order to improve the quality of higher education through enhanced mobility for students, teachers, researchers and professionals. It is also aimed at alleviating brain drain by reducing the difficulties encountered by those that have been trained or educated abroad. The recommendation supplements the set of regional conventions and suggests a number of new measures at the national and international levels in order to strengthen the application of the regional conventions.
UNESCO has made progress within the legal framework provided by the regional conventions and the international recommendation. These standards are adopted by the Member States (at the international and regional levels) and serve as guiding principles in the recognition of educational qualifications. In its turn, this legal framework facilitates the creation and development of a specific frame in the form of working mechanisms and bodies (at regional, national and institutional levels) which are in charge of recognition matters and, therefore, bring legal provisions closer to the needs of users. National information centres for academic mobility and recognition (already well known in Europe: European Community Network for National Academic Recognition Information Centres (NARIC)) have been established in 145 States in all regions of the world.
For the five regional conventions and the single international one, governmental committees in charge of their application have been established and meet once every two years to consider, among other things, national reports provided by the States Parties on the results achieved and on the obstacles encountered in their application. In several cases, these committees have established working groups to study issues of particular interest. These reports and those of the working groups are published so as to advance common reflection and knowledge on recognition issues. In 1992, the committees met together within the framework of UNESCO's Congress on the Recognition of Studies and Academic Mobility, to adopt a joint work plan.
As of March 1998, the regional conventions have obtained over 120 ratifications from Member States. The issue of ratification is a permanent concern of the UNESCO Secretariat and it receives a lot of attention on a daily basis. Those Member States who have not yet joined the conventions have at least two common concerns (as expressed orally by official representatives and government authorities, and sometimes in writing to the Secretariat of UNESCO). Some Member States suppose that membership in these conventions will weaken the position of national students vis-à-vis their international cohorts and will have negative implications on the national labour market by leading to unemployment among qualified national youth. This phenomenon could be identified as a fear of an international opening necessarily accompanied by greater competition and a fear of becoming a loser. Another common concern, more characteristic in the past to developing and the least-developed countries, but nowadays openly expressed by many industrialized States, is that by promoting academic mobility at the regional and international levels, the conventions encourage brain drain and thus contribute to the intellectual and economic impoverishment of States and of entire regions.
Thus, the seemingly purely academic and technical issues of student mobility and the recognition of educational qualifications turn into a dilemma of a world order confronting all societies. On the one hand, everybody agrees that knowledge is universal and the access to it must be sought by all means. Academic mobility is one of the principal means in higher education for the advancement of knowledge. The Constitution of UNESCO, drawn up in November 1945, places emphasis on the 'unrestricted pursuit of objective truth [...] the free exchange of ideas and knowledge', and on the 'international exchange of persons active in the fields of education, science and culture'. These principles underlie the activities of the Organization in the field of higher education.
On the other hand, since the early 1960s, UNESCO's Member States (particularly developing countries) have been confronted with the dangerous trend of massive brain drain and are searching for solutions to reverse the situation. In the cases of some countries it takes the form of a national tragedy. International recognition of studies and qualifications in higher education by all competent authorities and institutions was considered by UNESCO as a means of increasing the mobility of people in higher education and, at the same time, as one of the remedies to sustain and ultimately to reverse the brain drain phenomenon.
The joint work plan of the six intergovernmental committees
One of the aims pursued by the six intergovernmental committees when meeting in November 1992 was to give a fresh stimulus and a truly international dimension to activities in this field. Before that date, and in accordance with the relevant provisions of the regional conventions, intergovernmental committees in charge of the application of the regional conventions were set up in all UNESCO regions. They studied problems, through meetings, studies, recommendations and information exchange, mainly at the regional level.
However, it is common knowledge, corroborated by statistical data, that international mobility in higher education takes place predominantly at the inter-regional level. And recent experience related to the adoption of the international recommendation has indicated that there is considerable interest among Member States in broader-based international co-operation in this field.
One of the ways for UNESCO to approach the issue of recognition of educational qualifications at the international level is to develop co-operation among the regional committees in charge of the application of the six conventions. Such cooperation is specifically mentioned in the texts of the conventions and has been discussed at all sessions of the committees. Furthermore, the General Conference of UNESCO, at its twenty-sixth session held in 1991, invited the Director-General to 'support the development of closer co-operation between the Regional Committees of the existing conventions through exchanges of information, the undertaking of joint activities, the organization of joint meetings, etc.' Requests were made to UNESCO—which provides the Secretariat of the committees—to examine the possible ways and means for transforming this decision into reality.
The first joint meeting of all six regional committees was held on 5 November 1992 within the framework of the congress. It was called upon, on the one hand, to take stock of progress made so far through inter-committee co-operation but more particularly, to discuss the needs, ways and means by which this co-operation could be further strengthened and rendered more practically oriented and more efficient. The meeting resulted in the adoption of a joint work plan consisting of five joint actions, each of them bringing together a series of activities. The joint actions are as follows:
Implementation of the joint work plan started in January 1993 in close collaboration among the national authorities representing Member States within the regional committees, the secretariats of the regional committees located in UNESCO's regional offices and UNESCO Headquarters.
The work plan gave a strong impulse to the work of the committees and is being successfully implemented by them. The dissemination of information, so crucial in any type of international co-operation, is becoming more regular and comprehensive. Furthermore, the documentation produced by the committees is becoming substantially more solid, and training activities are now better structured than in the past and increasingly relevant to the needs of national and institutional authorities.
The six intergovernmental committees in charge of the application of the regional conventions will meet in their second joint meeting from 29 September to 2 October 1998. They will review the results obtained over the last six years of their work and examine the prospects for future action.
The first phase of the implementation of the joint work plan has permitted concentration and streamlining of UNESCO's action in the field of academic mobility and recognition. It has also permitted the development, over the last six years, of the mechanisms and schemes aiming at a better knowledge of academic mobility and recognition problems. The second phase should permit the consolidation of the process launched in 1992 and should assure transfer of knowledge and practice (in the field of academic mobility and recognition) between all regions and in all geographical axes (with particular emphasis on North-South, South-South and East-West relationships). It should encompass all Member States of UNESCO and aim at their involvement, without exception, in the work of conventions related to the recognition of studies and qualifications. Therefore, the strategy to be followed for the second phase should be global, based on continuity and on constant renewal. The continuity could be assured through the maintenance of the mechanisms proven to be useful (such as regional committees, networks of national information centres) and the renewal of work could be reached by developing an anticipatory action.
Trends and prospects in academic mobility, the recognition of studies and qualifications
The developments which occurred in the world in the last decade, and more particularly in the European Region of UNESCO (which historically has received the greatest number of international students), indicate several shifts in the area of academic mobility and highlight certain concerns common to both major recipient and sender countries.
One concern relates to the ever-increasing trend of brain drain and its devastating consequences on developing countries. This concern could be expressed as a rejection of unidirectional academic mobility or, in other words, of a 'one-way ticket'. In the 1990s, the relevant educational authorities and also a part of the public in industrialized countries have become more receptive to brain drain related issues and are searching for new and innovative solutions to remedy the phenomenon. The conditions are being created that should allow for a more concerted action in this domain by bringing together all of the interested parties: regional and national governmental and non-governmental educational and other authorities of both recipient and sender countries. Student representatives and economic sector representatives should also be included. The latter, in particular multinational companies, play an increasingly important role, not only in the globalization of the world's economy and in the professional mobility process, but also in the field of academic mobility. They achieve this by providing more opportunities to their employees for training at the higher education level, including training abroad. Nowadays it is also better understood that the former categorization and opposition of industrialized countries as the only winners and developing countries as the only losers might no longer be entirely valid. All States, to varying extents, are losers when academic mobility turns into the loss of talent for national development.
While recognition issues should remain central for intergovernmental committees, they should not lose sight of more global objectives: international peace and national development. The attainment of these goals may call for different, much more pro-active strategies and policies in the field of academic mobility and recognition. These policies should lead to solutions that would encompass both the necessity to further encourage international academic mobility as a means for the advancement of knowledge and for building a global society of tomorrow, and also the necessity to reverse the brain drain as a means to assure sustainable national development. These objectives should be kept in mind as the committees consider proposals for their joint work plan for 1999-2005.
In order to reconcile the two interrelated but also opposite trends—that of desired academic mobility and brain drain—UNESCO is searching for solutions and has identified some promising venues. One of them is the inter-university co-operation scheme, the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Programme, established in 1991 and considered by UNESCO Member States to be a strong stimulus for academic mobility and the rapid transfer of knowledge through twinning, networking and other linking arrangements. It aims at improving the relevance and quality of higher education and its contribution to national development through the delivery of courses and programmes of study and of research at an international standard. Almost all of the 260 or so agreements that have been signed by UNESCO with institutions participating in the programme aim at building up a common teaching and research programme in order to facilitate, inter alia, the recognition of qualifications obtained from such international programmes of study.
Another example of the support scheme aiming to ensure the return of talents to their countries of origin and, thus, to reduce the brain drain is that of the TALVEN (Talento Venezolano en el Exterior) project. This project was developed in late 1994 by the Venezuelan authorities (co-ordinated by the Permanent Delegation of Venezuela to UNESCO) in collaboration and with the financial support of UNESCO. Activities of TALVEN have since ensured some ninety short-term study visits to Venezuela of high calibre experts (originally from Venezuela and now living abroad). These activities included, among others, the holding of a series of seminars on the creation of small software enterprises (held at Simon Bolivar University), a seminar on AIDS (held at the National Academy of Medicine), a seminar on the economy (co-organized with the Central Bank of Venezuela) and a seminar on molecular biology (co-organized with the Centre of Medical Teaching, Trinidad). UNESCO intends to pursue the development of TALVEN-type projects in other countries and regions. At the same time, it should be noted that projects of this type require strong financial support and they can only be efficiently developed and sustained when financial sources and partners (other than UNESCO) are involved.
ACCREDITATION AND EVALUATION ISSUES
In the 1990s, international academic mobility is more spread out and diversified than ever before. The number of States and institutions of higher education providing access to international students is rapidly growing. New courses and programmes are being offered to international students. Academic mobility has taken new forms, including the creation of new diplomas and other national and international educational qualifications. The latter are increasingly offered by institutions that label themselves as international. A number of these higher education establishments are authorized to confer degrees on behalf of other establishments.
This situation may have multiple consequences, both positive and negative, and in particular with regard to the quality of higher education. Under these circumstances, it becomes important, if not imperative, to develop activities relative to accreditation and evaluation issues (covering both institutions and their programmes of study) within a common framework.
RECOGNITION OF SKILLS
The development and diversification of higher education finds its expression in the diversification of the student body and of the teaching personnel. Both the UNESCO policy paper on Change and development of higher education (1995) and the report of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century (1996) clearly indicate not only the spectacular quantitative growth of the student body but also the diversity of student and teacher populations by age group, acquired experiences and competencies.
Therefore, being accompanied by the appearance of a new category of student and academic staff, higher education is confronted with the necessity to integrate them and to accommodate their knowledge, practical skills and competencies into its own academic requirements. As a consequence, the recognition of skills and of acquired experiences and competencies becomes most important— not only for individuals and the higher education establishments concerned, but also for entire systems. In the end, it is directly linked to the observance and accomplishment of Article 26.1 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights which stipulates that 'higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.'
FINANCING OF INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC MOBILITY
Academic mobility, as any human development, requires permanent enhancement and capital investment. At the same time, it is the area for higher education institutions where the return from investment in financial terms is most visible and significant. The 28 November 1994 issue of Newsweek included an article concerning the trends in study of Asian students in American colleges as seen from the perspective of a trade issue. This article reports, among other things, that the United States Department of Commerce, which counts foreign students studying in America as an exported service, ranks college education as the nation's fifth largest export, behind freight transport, but ahead of banks. The above trend is a reality. It occurs because the budgetary provisions for higher education around the world are being sharply cut and many institutions have to search for the funds to permit their future existence and development.
Over the past decade, there has been a significant shift in the financing of international academic mobility. A statistical analysis of the contents of the 1995 and 1997 editions of Study abroad indicates around an 18% decrease in the fellowships provided and supported by international organizations and a 41% decrease in those offered by national institutions. At the same time, it is not evident that this loss of investment in academic mobility is entirely recovered through other public or private sources.
A careful and thorough study of financing issues, preferably in collaboration with other international and regional organizations knowledgeable of the issue of financing and effects of internationalization in higher education, should permit the establishment of comprehensive statistical data and the development of new strategies aimed to enhance international academic mobility.
NEW REGIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL PARTNERSHIPS
While the development of common markets and of cross-border trade remains a major driving force for international co-operation and regional integration, it is also clear that it results in the increased movement, not only of capital and of goods, but also of people. Therefore, an additional effort on behalf of the academic community is required in order to recognize their competencies and professional skills. Moreover, with the rapid development of science and technology and the ever-changing requirements of the employment market, the concept of 'lifelong education', advocated by UNESCO since the early 1960s, has become an imperative.
Nowadays, the trend of international co-operation in higher education, as well as in other domains, is best demonstrated in its regional, and even more in its sub-regional, dimension. The rapid development of certain older regional groupings like the Council of Europe, and the birth of new sub-regional groupings, like MER-COSUR (in Latin America) and NAFTA (in Northern America), are creating new opportunities with regard to academic mobility and the issue of recognition of educational qualifications.
The best example of this regional approach is the new Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications Concerning Higher Education in the European Region (adopted in Lisbon on 11 April 1997), and currently developed through the joint efforts of UNESCO and the Council of Europe. It represents a major innovation not only from the viewpoint of its contents and orientation, but also as an important step forward in terms of regional co-operation in Europe. It should be highlighted that this joint convention might inspire other regions to co-operate more closely with regional and sub-regional governmental organizations in order to set up similar agreements. Such an approach could be very beneficial in as far as it reflects the well-known principle of international life: think globally and act locally.
It is also true that such an effort is only realistic when certain necessary preconditions exist (like the political willingness and readiness of several regional actors to embark upon an issue of common interest). For example, in Africa, regional leadership could be offered by the Organization of African Unity and in Latin America and the Caribbean it could be the Organization of American States or the Latin American Parliament. In Asia and the Pacific region, due to the fact that this UNESCO region has some forty-two Member States and the multilateral governmental organizations established in the region to promote international economic co-operation are mostly of sub-regional nature, like ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations), PECC (Pacific Economic Co-operation Council) or even APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Forum), the most appropriate approach might be at the sub-regional level.
Regardless of the difficulties or complexities of different regional settings, they should not prevent governments and the academic community from pursuing co-operation in higher education, including the issues of academic mobility and recognition. Conventions adopted under the auspices of UNESCO are important in so far as they establish common principles and create a framework for other bilateral or multilateral agreements at all levels (national, local and institutional). Therefore, legislators should concern themselves with this particular aspect of international law and make concerted efforts in this regard in concert with the academic community, including various regional and local NGOs active in higher education, including professional and student organizations.
The contribution of such organizations to academic mobility and to recognition matters should not be underestimated or limited to a passive role. First, the principles of academic freedom and of institutional autonomy enjoyed by higher education institutions push them to be the main actors. Second, the academic community is the first to profit (in terms of quality) from the internationalization of higher education and, therefore, should be much more involved in all matters concerning the recognition of educational qualifications. Some people believe that the existing dilemmas of State versus individual, or of central versus local authority, will be resolved when those responsible for education, and for higher education in particular, at all levels have the same right to speak their minds and to take decisions as the decision-makers responsible for other sectors of human activity.
One example of successful co-operation between UNESCO and the Council of Europe was already mentioned. It involves co-operation with other European partners (the Commission of European Communities and the Nordic Council of Ministers). Internationalization of higher education has a high priority in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which has led a series of workshops on professional services where the issue of advancing liberalization through regulatory reform is addressed.
Multilateral governmental and non-governmental agencies from regions other than Europe should extend this co-operation. This emerging dialogue between different stakeholders in both internationalization of higher education and international trade in professional services may require co-ordination by a global infrastructure at the level of the United Nations.
International and intergovernmental organizations, like UNESCO, have a continuing obligation to keep up with the changes that have been occurring around the world in the last few decades. The repercussions of these changes on higher education need to be dealt with by means of new, fresh and different approaches. Without denying all of the positive steps that have been taken to improve the process of international exchange in higher education, it is nevertheless necessary to ask all stakeholders in higher education whether the strategy used over the last four decades is still valid and, if so, what should be improved or changed so as to make our action more relevant and efficient.
What should be done, for example, to combat such phenomena as the proliferation of post-secondary institutions that offer low-quality courses and programmes and deliver educational qualifications of no value for employers, while maintaining and even increasing enrolments, including students from abroad? What means and mechanisms will be the most appropriate for creating a truly productive dialogue and co-operation among students, scholars and key administrators on issues of academic mobility? With regard to the UNESCO conventions, are their mechanisms working efficiently and are their reporting systems useful tools in the monitoring process? What are the problems encountered by international students and how helpful are UNESCO conventions in resolving them? What are the other venues, apart from setting normative instruments, to be explored in order to promote proper academic mobility and to facilitate the recognition of qualifications earned in higher education? How will new information technologies (NIT) contribute to this endeavour and what will be the pitfalls to avoid in the 'information society' with regard to mobility and recognition in higher education? Is it not timely to fully explore the possibilities offered by NIT in order to furnish governments, universities, credential evaluators and students with modern tools facilitating both mobility and recognition of educational qualifications? For example, is it feasible to launch projects, at the regional and international levels, aimed at the preparation of software for recognition purposes (a kind of a computerized 'diploma converter') or projects aimed at better protection of educational documents (certificates, diplomas, degrees, etc)? What other types of support should be provided to facilitate international co-operation in the field of academic mobility and recognition?
The forthcoming World Conference on Higher Education will be the most important opportunity for the Organization to deepen its reflection and future-oriented analysis. It will be the first time in UNESCO's fifty-year history that a major international conference will be entirely devoted to higher education. The decision to hold this conference, being preceded and based on the series of regional conferences,2 is indicative of the interest attached to this area by UNESCO Member States. It also reflects the maturity reached by the Organization itself, capable today of addressing such complex policy issues as those of the future agenda of higher education.
The internationalization of higher education will be one of the main interests and discussion topics. From the perspective of academic mobility and recognition, this conference could be a turning point in so far as it should permit the formulation of proposals for action, including the identification of new priorities and the building of new partnerships. Some of these new partnerships are already internationally recognized and fully deserve to be forged and further developed.
Higher education plays a decisive role in the modern world and receives particular attention from Member States. The World Conference on Higher Education will afford an opportunity to take stock and to determine the future lines of emphasis of higher education with a view to improved responses to the problems of the relevance of educational content, graduate unemployment and complementarity between the different levels of education. This conference will therefore serve as a 'laboratory of ideas' for the new university of the 'global village'. The regional committees in charge of the application of the conventions are invited to contribute to this process. The joint work plan of the six intergovernmental committees for the years 1999-2005, once discussed and adopted, may serve the above purpose. It should be proposed to the World Conference on Higher Education for adoption as an integral part of the global action plan to be drawn up by the conference.
1. Regional convention on the recognition of studies, diplomas and degrees in higher education in Latin America and the Caribbean (1973, in Spanish, English and French); International convention on the recognition of studies, diplomas and degrees in higher education in the Arab and European States bordering on the Mediterranean (1976, in Arabic, English and French); Convention on the recognition of studies, diplomas and degrees in higher education in the Arab States (1978, in Arabic, English and French); Convention on the recognition of studies, diplomas and degrees concerning higher education in the States belonging to the Europe region (1979, in English, French, Spanish and Russian); Regional convention on the recognition of studies, certificates, diplomas, degrees and other academic qualifications in higher education in the African States (1981, in English and French); and Regional convention on the recognition of studies, diplomas and degrees in higher education in Asia and the Pacific (1983, in English, French, Chinese and Russian).
2. Latin America and the Caribbean, Regional Conference on Policies and Strategies for the Transformation of Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, Havana, Cuba, 18-22 November 1996; Africa, African Higher Education in the 21st Century, Dakar, Senegal, 31 March-4 April 1997; Asia and the Pacific, National Strategies and Regional Co-operation in Higher Education for the 21st Century, Tokyo, Japan, 8-10 July 1997; Europe, A European Agenda for Change for Higher Education in the 21st Century, Palermo, Italy, 25-27 September 1997; and Arab States, Regional Challenges in Higher Education in the 21st Century, Beirut, Lebanon, 2-6 March, 1998.
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