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Making History: The Importance of a New Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications

13 February 2017


Stig Arne Skjerven&Natasha Sawh

Student mobility is recognized as a global priority for realizing the Education 2030 Agenda.To this end, UNESCO is working on the preparation of a new Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications, which will build on the Regional Recognition Conventions. Two members of the Drafting Committee of the new Convention, Natasha Sawh and Stig Arne Skjerven, explain for Wide Angle the need of such a global legal instrument.

February 2017 marks the third meeting of the Committee to prepare the first draft of the convention for discussion and comments by UNESCO member states.

The recognition of foreign qualifications is a moral duty. We must keep in mind that there is an individual behind every qualification. Recognition of foreign qualifications is more than a technical exercise; recognition is more than a preparation for further studies or employment: recognition is a key to building inclusive societies, to facilitating empowerment, and to reducing the risk of alienation from the holders of foreign qualifications.

It is for this reason that we believe a Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications is now both so important and so timely for the world´s higher education systems, students, teachers and researchers.


The first generation of regional recognition conventions were adopted in the 1970s and 1980s to facilitate the mobility of students and researchers. Students, higher education leaders and governments alike understood the same basic principle: respecting the diversity of higher education systems and respecting the skills and knowledge gained within them is the foundation of mobility.

In the current context of unprecedented voluntary and at times forced migration, fair recognition of higher education qualifications is likewise a key foundation of successful settlement in a new home.

Discussions about the need for a Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications began at UNESCO in 2012. At the 2015 UNESCO General Conference, member states recommended that a Drafting Committee be established to present a draft convention in 2017.

Comprising experts from six continents working in higher education institutions, governmental roles, for qualifications authorities, and national information centres created through the regional conventions, the Drafting Committee was created in March 2016.

Toward a fair recognition on a global level

The drafters of the Global Convention, like those of the Regional Recognition Conventions, value the diversity of higher education systems and institutions around the world, and the rich cultural asset this diversity represents.

The autonomy of governments and individual higher education institutions to develop academic programs that meet the needs of increasingly interconnected societies and economies is of paramount importance. We believe that one important way to preserve this cultural diversity is to recognize the learning that occurs in higher education systems around the world. Fair recognition allows students to continue their studies or find meaningful work that benefits from their talents, knowledge, and skills.

Regardless of the different structures in place around the world, the right to access a fair assessment of higher education qualifications obtained in another country is a cornerstone of the Global Convention and of valuing the learning and human capital developed in higher education systems worldwide. From the early days of assessing academic credentials earned abroad, to an interconnected world with unprecedented levels of mobility, states have indicated their commitment – through the Regional Recognition Conventions  to reducing barriers for students and graduates to pursue further studies or obtain employment in other countries. Where mobility was once regionally focused, the flows of students and immigrants today cross regions, and a Global Convention is needed for states to signal their commitment to facilitating these flows through clear and fair recognition practices.

Over 5 million foreign students

The need for a Global Convention is evident in the flows of international students and immigrants – those who choose to pursue new opportunities in other countries – as much as the flows of people forcibly displaced by war, persecution, or natural disasters. Based on OECD data, current estimates of the number of students studying outside their country of citizenship puts the figure at over 5 million, representing an increase of 67% since 2005. Around 2.5 million of those students are studying outside their own region; these students have in principal no legal framework governing the principles or procedures used for the recognition of their qualifications for and when they return to their region of citizenship (See UNESCO Preliminary Report). UNHCR has indicated that “we are now witnessing the highest levels of displacements on record,” with 65.3 million people forced from their homes by war or persecution. While the majority of displaced people remain in the same region, increasingly, they are finding refuge outside of their regions.

The Global Recognition Convention will build on the Regional Recognition Conventions. It will emphasize the importance of fair recognition, by shifting the burden of proof from the student or graduate to the body responsible for recognition. It will take into account the diversity of higher education providers enabled by new technologies and modes of learning, by focusing on the quality assurance mechanisms states have put in place to ensure quality learning in their higher education systems. It will address the need to develop inclusive and relevant recognition procedures. To the extent possible, the Global Convention will support capacity building to develop the basic mechanisms to build trust in higher education systems: quality assurance mechanisms, qualifications frameworks, and networks of recognition professionals.

Natasha Sawh and Stig Arne Skjerven


Natasha Sawh is Coordinator (Head of Centre), Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials at Council of Ministers of Education, Canada

Stig Arne Skjerven is Director of Foreign Education, Department of Foreign Education, Director of the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education, Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education (NOKUT), Norwegian ENIC-NARIC, Norway


This article expresses the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of UNESCO