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Recognition

Introduction
Recognition has always been declared the heart of the Bologna Process by ministers (Bologna Declaration 1999). It was the key element paving the way to a united European Higher Education Area (EHEA), fostering mobility and internationalisation, lifelong learning and later on student-centred learning. It has been included in every Communiqué since the establishment of the Bologna Process. As the first European-level document on recognition, the Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region from 1997 initiated the process of creating transparent, simple and non-discriminatory recognition procedures that was further addressed in the Ministerial Communiqués of 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2012.

As early as in 2001, the Ministers also addressed the importance of recognition of prior learning (RPL) (Communiqué, 2001). With the paradigm shift towards student-centered learning and in the spirit of lifelong learning, European Higher Education Area has also drawn more attention to recognition of prior learning by addressing it in the documents adopted by the Ministers (Communiqué, 2012). Now the time has come to review the commitments and take measures for further implementation and development.

Main findings

Diploma supplement
Students have the right to receive a document that explains the qualifications gained, including learning outcomes and the context, level and status of the studies that were pursued and successfully completed. The Diploma Supplement should be issued automatically upon graduation or upon request before graduation, however it must always be free of charge and follow a standardised model clearly stating the learning outcomes achieved, including any additional credits and/or learning outcomes accumulated than the minimum requirement for obtaining a degree.

Thirty one out of thirty eight responding National Students’ Unions (NUSes) have reported that there is legislation on diploma supplements in their country. Despite the legislative basis, the number of NUSes reporting that diploma supplements are issued automatically upon graduation is lower (27 out of 38). According to our respondents, students still receive the diploma supplement only upon request in Estonia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Italy, France, Macedonia. Another problematic issue concerning diploma supplements is the fact that eight unions, from Serbia, Luxembourg, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Macedonia, have responded that their graduates are obliged to pay an additional fee in order to receive a diploma supplement.

Recognition procedures
From a student’s view the responses are rather positive about the non-discriminatory nature of the process of recognition. However, respondents are considerably critical to the the transparency of the process; a majority of respondents reports difficulties in this area (27 out of 38 unions). Alarmingly, some countries continue to lack even simple recognition procedures, according to six unions. This is especially the case for recognition of credits awarded outside of a mobility programme. Here, 26 out of 38 respondents describe the procedures as difficult or very difficult. Additionally, students are increasingly charged for the recognition of their diplomas, which is an intolerable and worrying tendency.

Establishing a fixed period of time for the duration of the recognition process from application to final decision is crucial for ensuring that the procedure is simple and accessible. Unfortunately, in 14 of 38 unions’ countries, there is no fixed period of time that the process has to be conducted in.

Three different entities responsible for the assessment of foreign diplomas and qualifications: national governments, recognition authorities/centres and higher education institutions. In the case of foreign diplomas, the recognition authorities are the most important assessor, taking part in the process according to the answers given from 26 out of 37 unions. Higher education institutions are somewhat less involved in the assessment (20 out of 37 respondents), followed by national governments (12).On the other hand, looking into the assessment process of foreign qualifications and credits, higher education institutions are the driving force for 30 out of 38 unions. Their leading position in comparison to recognition authorities (15 unions) and national governments (seven unions) can be explained by the increased supposed necessity of detailed, specific knowledge about the subject.

Regarding the final decision taken about the recognition of foreign diplomas and qualifications, the picture changes dramatically only in the case of the recognition authorities, who take final decisions according to 16 respondents for diplomas and 6 for qualifications and credits. The implication of the two other entities parallels their implication in the assessment.

There are also examples of the countries where the assessment procedure is more complex; namely, there is more than one entity assessing foreign diplomas and qualifications (e.g. the United Kingdom), or the assessment depends on the bilateral agreements (e.g. Czech Republic).

Automatic recognition of degrees within EHEA
A majority of respondents indicate the existence of specific forms of automatic recognition of degrees from the EHEA in their countries. The most popular is recognition based on bilateral agreements (14 out of 38 unions), closely followed by recognition based on the implementation of Bologna tools (11 out of 38 unions). Nevertheless, 11 NUSes responded that there is no form of automatic recognition whatsoever in their country. Among the reasons for the lack of automatic recognition were the various implementation levels of Bologna Process reforms and tools (23 out of 37 unions), an apparent lack of trust between the EHEA countries (22 out of 37 unions) and some concerns regarding regulated professions (20 out of 38 unions).

Although ministers committed to automatic recognition in Bucharest in 2012, it is clear that there is a considerably uneven implementation in regards to this. An overwhelming majority of unions responded that they support automatic recognition, and even 25 of 38 consider it a priority for EHEA.

Recognition of prior learning (RPL)
According to 29 out of 38 respondents RPL takes place in their respective countries. Fourteen unions have been working with established systems, while in 15 of unions’ countries some initiatives are in place. It is positive to see that only four unions have reported that no work has been done in order to enable RPL. In most countries, RPL is implemented in order to cover part of the curriculum (20 out of 27 unions) and to enable enrolment in higher education (16 out of 27 unions), while only in a few cases is it used as a tool to proceed to the next cycle (seven out of 27 unions). In some countries it have been used as an additional asset while evaluating students’ work (Serbia).

The lack of trust in the validation of qualifications is still considered a major barrier for RPL by ESU’s member unions (24 out of 36), as well as the limited information and a lack of trust among main stakeholders (20 out of 36 unions). Further aspects hindering the advancement of RPL include the lack of National Qualification Frameworks (14 out of 36 unions), legislation limiting RPL (13 out of 36 unions) and the lack of resources (11 out of 36 unions).

Conclusions and considerations for the future
Although the Lisbon Convention introduced the Diploma Supplement nearly two decades ago, the situation is still far from ideal. Many countries appear to issue the Diploma Supplement in accordance with the Lisbon Recognition Convention, nevertheless there is still a significant number of countries not fulfilling the criteria of automatically awarding diploma supplements free of charge.

Recognition procedures are complicated. Most countries do not follow the principles of transparent, simple and non-discriminatory recognition procedures described in Lisbon Convention. The duration of the recognition process is usually not fixed and the decision-making process is complex and in some cases nontransparent, and it is often complicated by administrative burdens. Sometimes more than one institution is responsible for conducting assessment of diplomas and qualifications with yet another institution taking the final decision. This may lead to confusion and complicates the entire process.

Automatic recognition is yet to be implemented. There are certain regions (Benelux countries, Nordic countries) that ensure automatic recognition, but this is limited only to the mutual recognition agreements in those particular regions. Among the reasons for automatic recognition not being reality, NUSes have stated that the largest obstables are the lack of the implementation of structural reforms play a significant role in it, as well as the lack of trust among main stakeholders.

Countries have initiated some initiatives for the implementation of RPL. However, despite the developments it has not been a priority under recognition, which led to many inconsistencies in the actions on national and institutional levels. The usage of RPL differs throughout the countries and is often limited to only one purpose, either as an alternative to enrolment in higher education or covering a part of the curriculum. There are also a number of obstacles defined that prevent the recognition informal and non-formal learning.

Recommendations
  • The issuance of a Diploma Supplement certifying qualifications gained, including the learning outcomes and the context must be guaranteed automatically after graduation or upon request before graduation and free of charge in every higher education institution across the EHEA. The document must follow a standardised model clearly stating the learning outcomes achieved, including any additional credits and/or learning outcomes accumulated than the minimum requirement for obtaining a degree.
  • Countries must follow the recognition procedures according to the Lisbon Recognition Convention. The national legislation should be reviewed to create accessible, simple and transparent procedures that will be conducted in a fixed time without any bureaucratic burden. It is important to emphasise, that the recognition of qualifications can only be refused in cases where they significantly differ from the qualificiations obtained in the home institution.
  • It is essential that the automatic recognition within the EHEA becomes a reality with the usage of the tools developed by the Bologna Process. This means that the recognition of degrees has to be guaranteed and granted automatically in all countries across the EHEA that have already fully implemented the Bologna structural reforms.
  • As one of the basis for the paradigm shift towards student-centered learning, RPL should give students the possibility for recognition of qualifications regardless of how they were achieved. It must be based on flexibility and trust allowing to recognise the qualifications achieved through formal and non-formal education as well as informal learning. The countries have to use the full potential designing the flexible process without creating bureaucratic burdens. RPL cannot only be used as an alternative to enrol in higher education, but also to integrate the qualifications achieved elsewhere into the curriculum or to proceed to another cycle.

References

Bologna Declaration (1999). Joint declaration of the European Ministers of Education convened in Bologna on 19 June 1999.

Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2001). Towards the European Higher Education Area.

Communiqué of the Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education in Prague on May 19, 2001.
Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2003). Towards the European Higher Education Area.

Communique of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education. Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2005). The European Higher Education Area—Achieving the Goals Communiqué of the Conference of European Ministers Responsible for Higher Education, Bergen, 19–20 May 2005.

Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2007). London Communiqué.Towards the European Higher Education Area: Responding to Challenges in a Globalized World.

Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2009). The Bologna Process 2020—The European Higher Education Area in the New Decade. Communiqué of the Conference of European Ministers Responsible for Higher Education, Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve, 28–29 April 2009.

Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2012). Making the Most of Our Potential: Consolidating the European Higher Education Area. Bucharest Communiqué.

European Students’ Union (ESU) (2012). “Bologna With Student Eyes 2012”. European Students’ Union: Brussels.

European Students’ Union (ESU) (2014). “Policy paper on quality of higher education”.
The Lisbon Recognition Convention 1997, The Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region, ETS No. 165.