Recognition of foreign qualifications
Every country in Europe can be considered a qualifications area. This means that qualifications (also referred to as diplomas) from institutions and/or programmes recognised by the competent (national) authorities are automatically nationally recognised. In contrast, foreign qualifications, i.e. qualifications from outside, are not automatically accepted. These foreign qualifications have to be recognised. (Note: an exception to this is explained below.)
Recognition might for example be required when you have studied in country X and want to work in country Y. This procedure is called the credential evaluation in order to recognise a foreign qualification. It is used to check if a foreign qualification can be accepted into the national qualifications area.
The recognition of foreign qualifications is the responsibility of the recognition bodies. Every European country has at least one these bodies. Most commonly we refer to these bodies as ENIC/NARICs: a combination of an ENIC and a NARIC.
Get a qualification recognised: select the relevant country on the left.
Academic versus professional recognition
There are two types of "international" recognition of qualifications: academic recognition and professional recognition.
Academic recognition refers to recognition decisions that either
- allow a person to pursue or continue higher education; or
- confer the right to use a national title or degree (e.g. PhD) from the host country on the basis of a title or degree acquired in the country of origin.
Professional recognition relates to the methodologies and procedures for evaluating credentials for work purposes and is a more intricate matter.
The system of professional qualifications reflects both the national system of education and the organisation of professions, industries and professionals themselves. In some countries, such as Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, most academic qualifications also serve as professional qualifications without additional requirements. In other countries, like the UK, professional qualifications are usually acquired upon completion of specific professional training that takes place outside and after university.
Professional requirements can be set under national law, or by professional organisations.
Academic recognition and professional recognition have different objectives and require different approaches and instruments. They do however share a methodology for evaluating the educational component of the credential or qualification.
Credential evaluation methodology
From the early 1950s to the mid-1970s the purpose of credential evaluation was to establish equivalence. Qualifications were evaluated on a course-by-course basis and every component of the foreign programme had to be matched with every component in the receiving country’s programme.
In the 1980s many countries replaced the concept of equivalence by that of recognition: the recognition of a qualification or a diploma for a specific purpose. In this sense, recognition means that a qualification which is not completely equivalent is recognised for a certain purpose (e.g. entry to a doctoral programme) if it fits that purpose. The idea was that a foreign qualification did not have to be identical or even alike in order to be recognised. The foreign degree just needed to have a comparable level and a comparable function and status.
An historian, graduated in country A, can be admitted to a PhD course in the country B even if this historian did not complete the same number of courses in medieval history as is usual in country B. The only condition would then be that this ’gap’ should not hamper participation in the PhD programme concerned.
In the 1990s, the concept of acceptance has gained ground among most ENIC/NARICs that have long been familiar with recognition. Acceptance means that a foreign qualification of which the level, content and/or function are not recognisably similar to the nearest comparable degree in the receiving country, will be accepted at that level even if there are slight differences. The principle is acceptance with respect for the differences. Only when the differences are too substantial recognition is denied. And although the debate concerning the precise meaning of the term ‘substantial differences’ will always be a lively one, this was a big leap forward.
A programme from country X could have a lower entry level but still have the same content and function as a similar programme in country Y. The qualification from this programme in country X could then be accepted by country Y. The differences are not disregarded, but accepted.
European 'legal' framework
In Europe two documents are regarded as the main regulatory framework:
- The Council of Europe/UNESCO Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region (Lisbon Recognition Convention, 1997)
- European Union's Directive on the recognition of professional qualifications (EU's Directive on recognition of professional qualifications, 2005/36/EC)
Lisbon Recognition Convention
The Lisbon Recognition Convention adopts the idea of acceptance. The core of this Convention is to emphasize the principle of fair and transparent recognition procedures, and the acknowledgement of differences which should be accepted unless they are found to be substantial. The burden of proof has been laid upon the host country. Transparency regarding the criteria used and procedures followed are the backbone of the Convention. Each party must provide appropriate information on their education system, qualifications and institutions. In this latter respect the networks of international recognition play an important role.
Although some signatory countries specifically underlined that this legal instrument should be seen purely in the framework of academic recognition, the Convention is also very useful for professional recognition. The reason, as pointed out already, is that in principle the methodology in academic recognition is no different from professional recognition as regards the evaluation of the educational component of the professional qualification. What is decisive in the end is the objective of the evaluation: further study or work. In the latter case, the employer might have specific questions for the credential evaluator. The principle of acceptance is also reflected in the European Union’s Directive on the recognition of professional qualifications.
EU's Directive on recognition of professional qualifications
The European Union's Directive covers the professions of doctor, nurse, dental practitioner, veterinary surgeon, midwife, pharmacist and architect. If you are regarded as qualified in one of these professions in one country of the European Union (home country) then you are allowed to practice that profession in another European Union country (host country). This practice then falls under the same conditions as nationals of the country (host country) where these professions are regulated.
PQuality assurance, accreditation and recognitionS
It is important to realise that in both case the recognition process is a case-by-case evaluation of foreign credentials. Although the 'legal' framework hugely facilitates recognition, it still does not entail automatic or generic recognition. However, the Lisbon Recognition Convention explicitly promotes all possible bilateral (national or institutional) agreements that could further facilitate recognition.
An ENIC/NARIC deals with questions such as: What is the quality or status of the programme and the institution? Is the institution involved recognised by any competent authority (e.g. ministry of education)? What is the level of the programme and is this programme up to that level? And how do we know that? What are the learning outcomes? If these questions can not be answered in a satisfactorily manner this could be regarded as a substantial difference.
Quality assurance and accreditation can play a role in taking away doubts. It should provide ENIC/NARICs with the necessary answers concerning the quality, the learning outcomes and the level of a programme.
Even if a quality assurance or accreditation agency states that a certain programme meets the predefined quality standards at for example master’s level, it should also be clear that this master’s level is compatible with the European level of a master’s degree. An ENIC/NARIC would otherwise still be able to invoke a substantial difference. The development of a European and subsequent national qualifications frameworks provides the necessary links between the national levels. In this way comparability or similarity of the level of a qualification are guaranteed.
|The ENIC-NARIC Network|
|Lisbon Recognition Convention|
|EU's Directive (PDF)|