Quality assurance for qualification recognition – reflecting on the implications of the Global Recognition Convention

“The diversity in quality assurance systems globally poses the question of what quality assurance should be used to inform qualification recognition”

Higher education, internationally, has been undergoing significant changes over the past 20 years. In particular, we have seen an increasing diversification of modes of delivery, including through online and blended learning, different types of international branch campuses and partnerships, articulation arrangements, short courses and work-based learning.

These developments have opened-up important opportunities to make progress towards more flexible and inclusive learning pathways, and thus in supporting the UNESCO vision captured in the Roadmap to 2030 of fostering “diversity over uniformity and flexible learning over traditionally well-structured, hierarchical models of education”.

There are however important challenges to fully untapping the potential offered by the diversification and internationalisation of higher education, challenges associated with the international recognition and portability of qualifications.

These challenges ultimately rest on a lack of understanding of and trust in qualifications obtained in different educations systems or through non-traditional modes of delivery. This calls for the development of a shared international understanding about what quality education should look like and how it should be quality assured so as to underpin international confidence.

This call is voiced by the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications Concerning Higher Education (Global Convention), the first United Nations treaty on higher education with a global scope.

Entered into force in March 2023, with 22 countries having ratified it at the time of writing, the Global Convention places particular emphasis on both non-traditional modes of learning, such as online learning, transnational education, short periods of study and recognition of prior learning, and on the role of good structures for quality assurance enabling trust in qualifications.

Key to the successful implementation of the Global Convention, and thus the realisation of the UNESCO’s vision for the future of higher education as set out in the Roadmap to 2030, will be the response of the quality assurance community in developing robust and flexible systems capable to underpin global trust in qualifications, regardless of where and how these might have been delivered and studied.

Equally key will be the response of the qualification recognition community to developments in international quality assurance practice.

International quality assurance practice has made significant strides over the past 20 years, with most countries worldwide having developed national quality assurance systems, and the emergence of a range of accreditation bodies operating internationally. There is however significant diversity in quality assurance systems in terms of their purpose, scope, standards, processes, and status. This diversity does pose the question of what quality assurance should be used to inform qualification recognition, and support the development of flexible learning pathways capable to widen access to education and life-long learning for all (SDG4).

The status of quality assurance systems has particular importance, since traditionally it has been nationally mandated quality assurance that international credential evaluators have been looking at to be guided in their qualification recognition decisions. It is interesting to reflect on whether more flexible approaches to the use of quality assurance for qualification recognition might help responding to the Global Convention’s call ‘to develop better tools and practices for the recognition of higher education qualifications’, capable to support the recognition of more flexible learning modes and pathways.

Considering that there are still significant gaps in nationally mandated quality assurance of less-traditional modes of learning – such as transnational education or short courses or recognition of prior learning – could voluntary quality assurance services provide an additional tool in the gearbox of international credential evaluators? That is, should nationally mandated or statutory quality assurance necessarily be considered a necessary condition?

In answering this question, the key challenge is that of identifying those quality assurance systems (statutory or voluntary) that can be relied and trusted upon to inform qualification recognition. A number of regional and international initiatives have emerged over the past 20 years to help identifying trustworthy quality assurance bodies. Arguably the most established example is represented by the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG), whose key goal is to contribute to the common understanding of quality assurance in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

However, the ESG, whilst having helped to harmonise quality assurance practice across the EHEA, do not currently play a role in supporting qualification recognition. Compliance with the ESG, or being listed in the European Quality Assurance Register (EQAR) – the register of those agencies which have demonstrated compliance with the ESG – is neither a necessary or sufficient condition for a quality assurance system or agency to inform qualification recognition.

It is not a necessary condition since credential evaluators in the EHEA are not bound to ESG compliance when making their qualification recognition decisions. After all, EHEA credential evaluators are asked to and do recognise qualifications from non-EHEA education systems, even if these are underpinned by quality assurance systems that have not been reviewed against and might not be compliant with the ESG. Hence the importance of the Global Convention and its call to develop shared understanding and solutions for quality assurance and recognition applicable at a global level – going beyond national and regional frameworks.

The ESG are also not a sufficient condition for recognition since there are quality assurance or accreditation agencies listed in EQAR, whose outcomes are not considered by credential evaluators for the purpose of qualification recognition because they are not nationally mandated agencies. In this connection one might consider whether compliance with established regional or international frameworks such as the ESGs, if not a necessary condition, could perhaps be used as a sufficient condition to inform qualification recognition practice. Could that be a way to open-up recognition of qualifications offered through provision quality assured by non-statutory or non-nationally mandated agencies, with an ultimate view to supporting the acceptance and development of more flexible and inclusive learning practice?

If international frameworks for external quality assurance might be able to function as a sufficient condition for recognition, it might be more challenging to turn them into a necessary, prescriptive, condition. The key challenges here is navigating the fine line between providing a solid shared foundation for the quality assurance and recognition community and fossilising practice, thus risking stifling innovation in quality assurance and ultimately in education provision – especially in the context of a fast-changing international higher education and regulatory landscape.

As with every aspect of society governed by standards which are not set in stone but reflect the wisdom of dynamic communities of practice, the international quality assurance and recognition communities will be able to fulfil their role as enablers of innovative and needed solutions to society’s changing education and training needs, and avoid posing unnecessary barriers to innovation, only by remaining open to questioning and reconsidering established practices. And doing so through inclusive dialogue involving all key stakeholders, including in particular education providers, students, and employers.

About the author:  Fabrizio Trifirò is the Head of Stakeholder Engagement and International Quality Reviews at Ecctis, the agency that manages the UK qualification recognition function (UK ENIC), and is a member of the Board of Directors of the International Network of Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE).