A door to collective progress
In the past, academic mobility was primarily driven by curiosity and the goodwill of individuals from different countries on a relatively small scale and aimed to enhance international understanding in a less globalised world. However, today, academic mobility is propelled to a greater extent by economic and social integration, with broader objectives of strengthening interconnected economies and societies.
Despite many ongoing regional integration processes, we have yet to achieve equal opportunities when it comes to the international mobility of students, professionals and skilled workers. Several factors contribute to this reality, with the recognition of higher education qualifications being a critical one that can either facilitate or hinder such mobility.
The significance of academic recognition has become apparent with the growing numbers of international students studying in various countries. This has led to a rising demand to assess and recognise foreign qualifications acquired by domestic students, ensuring their equivalence with domestic qualifications.
Academic recognition also includes recognition of domestic qualifications by other countries. This can drive countries to prioritise academic recognition. The main goal should be establishing two-way recognition, ensuring qualifications are mutually recognised. By emphasising this, countries can foster comprehensive and inclusive academic recognition that benefits individuals and promotes international collaboration.
This is particularly relevant as numerous countries aspire to become new higher education hubs. Enhancing the recognition of qualifications offered by these hubs becomes crucial to bolstering their appeal to both domestic and international students.
Academic recognition serves two main purposes: facilitating further studies and enhancing employment prospects. In the context of further studies, there are generally fewer obstacles and barriers to overcome since university admission criteria tend to be more flexible, driven by competition to attract international students.
However, recognising qualifications for employment opportunities is a more complicated process involving the higher education sector and various other stakeholders, such as immigration, industry and human resource experts.
Skills recognition plays a pivotal role in facilitating skills migration, particularly in countries that are facing labour shortages. However, countries striving to achieve full employment may opt to implement protective measures to regulate the influx of skilled workers.
Academic recognition is gaining relevance for many countries, extending beyond the few traditionally regarded as the primary sending and receiving countries of international students. The stakes are high as we collectively move towards a more interconnected and globalised future.
UNESCO’s recognition conventions
For the past half-century, UNESCO has been at the forefront of promoting the recognition of qualifications concerning higher education, making it a flagship activity. The first generation of regional conventions concerning academic recognition emerged in the 1970s, driven by the imperative of fostering intellectual solidarity and international understanding.
Europe spearheaded the initiation of the second generation of regional recognition conventions by adopting the Lisbon Convention in 1997. This was followed by Asia and the Pacific, which adopted the Tokyo Convention in 2011 which entered into force in 2018.
Subsequently, we have witnessed the development and implementation of the second generation of regional recognition conventions in Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean.
The emergence of the second generation of regional recognition conventions can be attributed to regional integration, technological advancements and globalisation. These developments eventually paved the way for the development of UNESCO’s Global Convention on Higher Education, which entered into force after obtaining the necessary number of ratifications earlier this year.
By utilising recognition as a strategic entry point for UNESCO’s engagement in higher education, we forge a vital connection between recognition, quality assurance and qualifications frameworks, thereby facilitating the smooth cross-border mobility of students and professionals.
The main objective is promoting and strengthening international cooperation in higher education, ensuring that academic recognition, quality assurance and mobility resonate synchronously, leading to a more accessible and globally connected higher education landscape.
Central Asian countries have the potential to serve as a vital link between Asia-Pacific and Europe by actively ratifying and implementing both the Tokyo and the Global convention, which are complementary.
By being parties to these conventions, Central Asian countries can collaborate with other parties to foster mutual recognition arrangements, advance the development of recognition tools and access capacity-building opportunities, thereby expanding their influence and contributing to the international higher education community.
Expanding recognition portfolios
The establishment and functioning of competent recognition authorities and national information centres (NICs) serve as vital implementation mechanisms for the UNESCO recognition conventions.
It is worth noting that these entities may differ in their organisational structure across countries. In certain countries, they are distinct and operate as separate entities; in others, they function as a unified entity.
Irrespective of their structure in different countries, their primary objective is to promote inclusivity by encouraging all parties to the conventions to expand their recognition services to cover diverse qualifications acquired through various delivery methods, including online and blended learning as well as micro-credentials.
While it is essential to prioritise the recognition of traditional school-leaving diplomas, certificates and standardised tests for higher education access, we must also tackle the growing diversity of learning programmes offered by the growing number of learning providers utilising advanced technologies. To achieve this, we must align our recognition portfolio with the increasing adoption of flexible learning pathways.
We need to shift our mindset regarding online and blended learning, integrating them seamlessly into the national higher education ecosystem. In other words, they should be perceived not merely as contingency or back-up plans for emergencies but as essential and integral components of the higher education system.
There has been a remarkable surge in efforts to streamline learning programmes across different countries and regions. Micro-credential programmes have been introduced to boost the agility, relevance and quality of higher education offerings. To meet this demand, our recognition authorities, including higher education providers, must be sufficiently equipped to provide recognition services for these micro-credential programmes.
According to UNESCO’s conventions on academic recognition, the main approach to recognition should involve comparing qualification information between countries to assess substantial differences. Therefore, the establishment and efficient operation of
NICs are of paramount importance.
This work should already have been established within relevant ministries as public information and outreach are integral components of their regular responsibilities. However, in many cases, the need for standardised templates to share information on higher education systems is evident. Furthermore, the absence of international language options can exacerbate this challenge.
The conventions have delineated specific focus areas for NICs regarding their information provision, including a comprehensive list of recognised or accredited higher education institutions, national quality assurance systems, qualifications frameworks and more.
Robust research support is fundamental for NICs to ensure that all the provided information is well-developed and consistently updated. Asia and the Pacific are home to several well-established and functioning NICs in countries like Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea.
Nevertheless, some countries in the region are still in the process of developing their NICs. Encouraging mutual learning and support among these centres will be vital in building capacity and strengthening the network of NICs in the region.
Interregional cooperation, especially between Asia-Pacific and Europe, plays a crucial role in mobilising experiences and expertise for capacity building. This cooperation can be further reinforced by acknowledging that half of the 12 countries that have ratified the Tokyo Convention are also parties to the Lisbon Convention, including Armenia, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Turkey and the Holy See.
We strongly urge the Central Asian countries to expedite their ratification of UNESCO conventions on higher education, as this will foster greater collaboration and collective progress in the region.
Brain drain, gain and circulation
Facilitating academic recognition significantly removes barriers to the cross-border mobility of students and professionals, thereby contributing to enhanced access, quality and equity in higher education provision.
However, sending countries often face challenges associated with brain drain, as the departure of talented individuals contributes to the brain gain experienced by many receiving countries.
We need to get past the concepts of brain drain and brain gain and instead embrace the idea of brain circulation. This approach allows talented individuals to have equal opportunities to move across borders, contributing their skills locally, internationally and globally, thus fostering a more interconnected and collaborative global community.
To achieve this, the implementation of well-balanced policies is crucial. These policies should minimise risks, maximise opportunities and create mutually beneficial outcomes for both sending and receiving countries. Enhanced mobility, supported by fair, transparent and effective academic recognition mechanisms, will be vital in realising these objectives.
Libing Wang is director (ad interim) of the UNESCO Multisectoral Regional Office in Bangkok, Thailand. This is a lightly adapted version of a keynote speech delivered at the recent International Conference on Central Asia as the Next Higher Education Hub, held in Tashkent, the Republic of Uzbekistan.
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