Australia is expected to ratify the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education, which was adopted by the UNESCO General Conference in 2019.

The adoption of the global convention is a landmark decision as it establishes universal principles for recognising qualifications across borders. Up to now, member states have adopted a variety of approaches to pursue recognition of qualifications.

In this commentary, I highlight why the adoption of the global convention matters and discuss some of the development which brought UNESCO to adopt it, along with some key policy challenges.

Why it matters

The world now operates in a borderless environment due to globalisation, trade liberalisation and technological transformation. Noticeably;

* trade in services is increasing and is dependent on a highly skilled labour force

* foreign direct investment is dependent upon sourcing staff with skills aligned with international standards

* pathways to prosperity are dependent on the ability to innovate, be competitive and be highly relevant in a rapidly changing environment

* there are better opportunities for graduate and professional across borders

Some of the key developments underpinning these changes come from the 227.6 million enrolments globally in higher education in 2019, expected to reach 594.1 million enrolments by 2040 (Calderon, 2018). As a result, there is

* greater outward mobility of persons for the purposes of study (5.6 million students studying abroad in 2018).

* greater inward mobility due to increased recognition of qualifications of qualifications.

* a higher proportion of the overall population with tertiary qualifications. Over 50 million graduates in 2018, of which approximately 370 000 were architects and 7.2m engineers (see Calderon, 2019).

* increased institutional diversity, quality of course offerings and regulatory challenges. For example, in 2021 there were 220m students enrolled in 19 400 open on-line courses across over 950 universities globally (see Class Central, 2021).

Another significant development is that the number of international migrants is increasing year on year. In 2020, there were more than 169 million migrant workers, with varying degrees of skills, abilities, and competences. As a result, there is the need to invest in skills development; to facilitate mutual recognition of skills, qualifications, and competences. We also see that graduates are working in a variety of industry sectors, and increasingly moving more between sectors and occupational levels. Therefore, it is easier for business to operate across borders.

Through the policy lens

Governments have responded in a variety of ways to these forces of change by

* filling skill shortages through immigration (temporary and / or permanent),

* enhancing the outward mobility of their citizens (particularly at higher skill levels) and service providers, and

* developing an internationally competitive workforce (through curriculum re-design, cross cultural understanding, or exchanges)

In practice, the assessment and recognition of foreign qualifications has been on the rise. Over the years, governments across the globe have adopted a range of perspectives. For example, since 2005 the European Union has worked to promote automatic recognition of qualifications. In our region, there have been a variety of approaches adopted (e.g. ASEAN) which feature both mutual recognition and harmonisation. In Australia, mutual recognition is governed by the Mutual Recognition Act (1992) and the Trans-Tasman Mutual Recognition Act (TTMRA, 1997) and is administered by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment. The TTRMRA is an example of a system that provides international licensing.

On these bases, the implementation of the global convention is timely and necessary. It is also designed to promote international cooperation in higher education and research, enhance the quality of higher education provision, provide greater opportunities for cultural intelligence, dialogue and peace building, and support sustainable development of knowledge societies.

In principle, the global convention is also a step in the right direction for open and fair recognition of qualifications as a universal right, to bring international coherence in recognition processes, and facilitate recognition of qualifications and prior learning across regions. Recognition can also be seen as an enabler for quality enhancement of higher education across [and within] national systems.

The global convention acknowledges that individuals have the right to have their qualifications assessed for the purpose of applying for admissions to higher education studies or seeking employment opportunities. Previously, it was up to individuals to prove why their qualifications should be recognised. Responsibility now shifts to recognition authorities to prove why such foreign qualifications should not be recognised if recognition is not granted. Applicants also have the right to appeal.

It is worth pointing out that refugees and displaced persons are covered by this convention. The global convention calls out the need on governments to take necessary and feasible steps to develop reasonable procedures for fairly and efficiently assessing whether refugees and displaced persons fulfil the relevant requirements for access to higher education, to further higher education programs, or to seeking employment opportunities.

Some caveats and spins

Adoption of the global convention does not imply automatic recognition of qualifications. The global convention also acknowledges the role of the various national, regional, and global organisations for accreditation, quality assurance, qualification frameworks, and recognition of qualifications. It also means that the various UNESCO Regional Conventions will continue to be binding.

It does not mean that the recognition of qualifications will automatically lead to the right of professional practice. This is an issue which has relevance for countries like Australia which have large numbers of migrants (skilled, refugees and displaced persons) who have studied abroad, and therefore seek registration to practice their respective occupation in their new country.

There is often resistance from local professional bodies who fear competition and erosion of licensing privileges. Professional licensure is an issue which has been debated for several decades and it is one that is likely to remain unresolved for many years yet. This is because licensing standards differ across countries and even within the same jurisdiction. For example, in the USA licensing standards vary from state to state. In Australia, occupational licensing is a matter for every state and territory government (an example is here).

One area in which Australia is yet to make progress is in relation to the recognition of prior learning and credit transfer. This is because there is not a system that enables the automatic recognition of prior learning, and it currently remains the responsibility of every institution to develop their own credit transfer arrangements (see TEQSA). We are meant to have a unified national system and yet it remains extremely hard for students who transfer from one institution to another within the same state to know how much credit students are likely to receive from prior learning.

The adoption of the global convention on the recognition of qualifications (which includes recognition of partial studies and prior learning) is an opportunity to make amends for this fault in Australia’s education system.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research at RMIT

This commentary is based on a presentation made to a workshop on improving licensure in APEC in Santiago, Chile, March 2019


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