Migration in Higher Education: The Recognition of Cross-Border Qualifications


By Joseph T. Isaac, Ed.D.

If you have ever been a foreign student, faculty or researcher, you know some of the challenges experienced by immigrants and refugees in education. Regardless of the reasons why people decide to leave their homeland, navigating and integrating into a new society comes with a multitude of hardships for immigrants and refugees, including vulnerability to the stress of culture, language, complex systems, schools, employment, and much more. Higher education, for immigrants and refugees, seems to be the perfect intersection for a successful transition and integration to be created. That’s why UNESCO member States have created a framework for the recognition of qualifications concerning higher education.

As a UNESCO member State, Liberia was represented at the Intergovernmental Meetings of Higher Education experts, including the March 22, 2019 gathering, when experts approved the Draft Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education. When adopted, the Global Convention will give students, faculty and researchers the right to have their foreign qualifications evaluated based on transparent, reliable and non-discriminatory procedures conducted within a reasonable timeframe. The Global Convention also addresses recognition of qualifications for individuals without proper documentation, such as refugees and displaced persons. The burden of proof shall be placed on the recognition authority, which each member State shall establish; with the applicant having the right to appeal the decisions.

Given recent increase in the number of cross-border education activities as the result of an upsurge in migration around the world, college and university administrators are sharing research to better understand migration and its impact on higher education. UNESCO is leading the way in supporting studies to uncover the challenges and values of education mobility. Research on cross-border education shows that mobility of students has been growing rapidly in the past 50 years, and in some cases, the growth is unbalanced. While an unbalanced education migration may be considered signs of “brain-drain” for some nations with out-migration; it could be interpreted as “brain-gain” for those with in-migration.

According to UNESCO, the increase in mobility of tertiary students across the globe in the past 10 years is significant, noting that this is the time for a global regulatory framework for the recognition of higher education qualifications. According to a 2015 UNESCO report, global academic mobility has been on the rise for more than a decade, and the number has more than doubled since 2001. Tracing this surge back to 1975, the number of tertiary level international students world-wide was 800,000; the number increased to 2.8 million in 2005, and then to 4.1 million in 2013. By 2020, there will be approximately 8 million students studying abroad.

The associated increase in tertiary education mobility has propelled higher education experts from UNESCO member States to develop a framework in addressing how to receive students, faculty, and researchers from other countries. The framework which led to the drafting of the Global Convention was intended to help reduce the obstacles faced by students, faculty and researchers as they travel to other countries for education and employment opportunities. By 2016, there was a call for a global regulatory framework to recognize higher education qualifications by experts from UNESCO member States.

Work on drafting the Global Convention began in March 2016 when UNESCO established a Drafting Committee following the Organization’s General Conference decision (38/Resolution 12). In November 2017, the General Conference approved continuation of the elaboration process, including further consultations with member States. The process continued in 2018, when UNESCO received comments and observations from 68 member States and nine stakeholder organizations. Based on the feedback received, the Secretariat presented proposal for a Draft Global Convention to be examined by the Intergovernmental meetings of experts. Technical and legal expert were appointed by UNESCO member States and associate members, as well as observers from non-member States and other stakeholders to assist with the review process. The first Intergovernmental meeting to review the Draft Convention was held in December 2018, in Paris, where Liberia was represented. Following the December meeting, a second Intergovernmental meeting was held in March 2019, where member States conducted final review of the Global Convention; and endorsed the Draft Convention that was subsequently submitted to the Director-General of UNESCO to be presentation at the 40th General Conference of UNESCO in November 2019.

How Can Liberia Improve its Participation?

As a member State with permanent representation at UNESCO, as well as a UNESCO Higher Education Commission office in Liberia, benefits from various UNESCO programs are available with participation. However, in addition to the pending Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education, there are nine UNESCO Conventions that have not been ratified by Liberia. With the appropriate dose of political will, the government might consider forming a Commission to review each Convention; and make recommendations to the President and Legislature for subsequent ratification by the Senate:

1. Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed conflict with regulations for the Execution of the Convention (The Hague, 14 May 1954)

2. Protocol to the Convention for the protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed conflict (The Hague, 14 May 1954)

3. Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (Paris, 14 November 1970)

4. Convention on Technical and Vocational Education (Paris, 10 November 1989)

5. Regional Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Diplomas and Degrees in Higher Education in the African States (Arusha, 5 December 1981)

6. Second Protocol to the Hague Convention of 1954 for the protection of Cultural property in the event of Armed Conflict (The Hague, 26 March 1999)

7. Convention on the Protection of the Under Water Cultural Heritage (Paris, 2 November 2001)

8. Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (Paris, 17 2003)

9. Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, (Paris , 20 October 2005) Further, Liberia should take appropriate actions to increase participation in various UNESCO projects and program, including but not limited to the following:

1. The UNESCO Chair Program: There is an inactive Chair Program signed by the University of Liberia on 7 December 2011; the UNESCO/Mary Antionette Brown Sherman Chair in Education for Sustainable Development.

2. Train My Generation: Established out of the ambition to train at least 5,000 young people in the fields of communication and technology, Gabonese President Ali Bongo ONDIMBA, during the 2013 New York Africa forum ignited this program.

3. International Taskforce on Teacher Education: In 2008, at the 8th meeting of the High-Level Group on Education held in Oslo, Norway, the International Taskforce on Teachers for Education was created.

4. Education Section Planning: Liberia should participate in the Education Sector Planning, which allows participants to acquire and further develop the knowledge and skills needed to perform effective educational planning responsibilities; and,

5. The Addis Convention: The Africa Region’s Convention was adopted in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 12 December 2014; it creates the norms for recognizing foreign higher education qualifications and gives access to higher education in the Africa region.

Ratifying the Addis Convention is the very first step to showing that Liberia is committed to supporting the principles of cross-border higher education qualifications which are in the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education Qualifications.

About the Author:
Dr. Isaac is the 4th President of AME University, and president of the Association of Liberian Universities. He was appointed twice to represent Liberia at UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Meeting of Higher Education Experts in Paris, France in 2018 and 2019; and participated in the review and approval of the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning higher education.


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