"It's all about the will and confidence in each other's education systems"

A degree does not automatically give you access to advanced programmes abroad. It often takes a lot of time and money to get a degree recognised, and this needs to be changed.
Posted by Tefke van Dijk

A degree does not automatically give you access to advanced programmes abroad. It often takes a lot of time and money to get a degree recognised, and this needs to be changed. European agreements on the ‘value’ of a degree would allow educational institutions to decide more quickly whether they can admit someone. However, automatic recognition does not mean automatic access. Substantive checks will remain important for educational institutions.

In 2018, the recommendation was issued for the automatic recognition of degrees in the European Union. Automatic recognition means that you automatically become eligible for a degree programme from one educational level to the other. In principle, in other words, a Bachelor's degree should give you access to a Master's programme in Europe. This must be fully implemented in all member states by 2025.

Recognition does not mean instant access

Some countries and educational establishments were startled by the term ‘automatic’. “In the beginning, it was a challenge to clarify the exact meaning”, says Lucie Trojanova, who works on automatic recognition in higher education at the European Commission. “Automatic recognition does not mean that educational institutions have to accept every degree. You still need to do a substantive check.”

Diana Hense, Head Admissions Officer at the University of Amsterdam, understands the initial fear. “When the first reports about automatic recognition came out, people thought it meant you had to let everyone in. There’s no need to worry about that. It’s a European regulation that is intended to make our lives easier. Substantive checks will always remain in place. Especially in the case of Master's programmes, which can be very specific, you can never automatically accept someone with a Bachelor's degree. As a university, we can decide not to admit someone to the degree programme because we know from experience that someone’s background and the desired degree programme are not a good match, for example.”

What is automatic recognition?

The official definition is as follows: “Automatic recognition of a degree should lead to the automatic right of an applicant holding a qualification of a certain level to be considered for entry to the labour market or a programme of further study at the next level in any other EHEA country.” This definition is reflected in the recommendation of the European Ministers of Education (2018) for the creation of the European Education Area.

When applying automatic recognition, three of the five main elements of a qualification are automatically accepted: the level, quality and workload. Educational institutions still have to check the other two elements (profile and learning outcomes) of a qualification in order to determine whether a person meets the specific admission criteria for a particular degree programme.

Confidence in each other's education systems

This summer, a study will be launched to chart what has happened since 2018 and member states will have to inform the European Commission of their progress in 2021. Trojanova acknowledges that there is still a high level of inequality. “Not all member states have made the same progress. Especially in Central and Eastern Europe, they still have a lot of work to do.”

She now sees that the COVID-19 outbreak is causing students to fear that their results will not be recognised. “Automatic recognition can help students to achieve the international recognition of their degree. If an institution says that you passed, you need to be able to rely on this.”

Automatic recognition indicates confidence in each other's education systems, says Lotte Dijkink of the Benelux Secretariat-General in Brussels. “It's all about the will and confidence in each other's education systems. Although these differ, confidence based on quality assurance will gradually bring us closer to European cooperation.”

The European Commission is trying to encourage member states in all kinds of different ways. Ultimately, they will have to apply the automatic recognition of degrees in their national educational institutions. Various regional agreements have already been reached.

Benelux as a laboratory

For example, in 2015 the Benelux countries signed a decision for the recognition of Bachelor's and Master's degree levels. According to Dijkink, a decision was deliberately chosen rather than a treaty because a decision can be adopted more quickly. “The agreements are binding and all countries have to incorporate the decision into their national legislation. The decision led to rapid cooperation within the Benelux, with no need to wait for an EU-wide approach. It also has a laboratory function and serves as a test and example for the EU.”

In 2018, the decision was extended to all diplomas and degrees in higher education, including associate degrees and doctorates in addition to Bachelor's and Master's programmes. The Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) have also reached mutual agreements. A declaration of intent between the Benelux and the Baltic States to conclude a treaty was signed in November 2019.

Dijkink: “This is an important step towards expansion to include more member states. Neighbouring countries tend to be quicker to trust each other. In Europe, there are more partnerships as a result of a common language or mobility, just as there were already agreements in place between the Netherlands and Flanders before the Benelux decision. The more countries reach agreements, the easier it will be to link them together.”

“Automatic recognition can help students to achieve the international recognition of their degree. If an institution says that you passed, you need to be able to rely on this.”

- Lucie Trojanova, European Commission

Faster, more consistent and fairer

Automatic recognition speeds up the application, registration and admission, as the first step in the process. The intention is to avoid long procedures for students. Trojanova: “Sometimes students are surprised to find that automatic recognition does not yet exist in Europe. In some member states, they have to submit the entire content of a degree programme, including translated theses.

After that, they have to wait 30 days to three months and pay 150 euros, still without having any certainty as to whether they will be welcome. Students don’t really want to do that kind of thing. If it's difficult to go somewhere and then you also have a hard time getting recognition when you get home, students won't do it. Even though international experience is so important, perhaps even necessary.”

According to Trojanova, automatic recognition offers a lot of potential. “As a country, you will get more international students if the process is easier. It is also safer and better economically as less administration leaves you more time to focus on your policy. It also ensures greater equality between international and national students. There is no loss of quality, as the institution always makes the final decision.”

Hense confirms this: “Of course there is a difference in level between educational institutions and countries, that’s simply a fact. However, you can start by recognising the qualifications and saying that a Bachelor's is a Bachelor's. This recognition does not directly say anything about the quality of the Bachelor's programme, but it gives you an impression. With automatic recognition, you accept the differences that exist.”

"In some member states, they have to submit the entire content of a degree programme, including translated theses."

Putting the most common degrees in a system allows students to select their own degree and gives institutions something to go on, as the system makes the translation. Hense: “Although this gives us an idea of the level, we don’t have to simply agree with it. You always need to check whether it’s a good match in terms of the content. Some of the preliminary work has been done, however, and that is where the major advantage lies.”

As a result of the Benelux decision, agreement now exists on the level of higher education in these countries. The assessment of the content is carried out by the educational institutions. “They can decide that someone needs to take additional courses”, says Dijkink.

11,000 Bachelor's applications every year

Although the exchange and inflow of international students changes every year, the Netherlands and Germany are certainly at the forefront. The UvA also receives many international students on an annual basis. “Every year, we have a huge influx of European Bachelor's students”, says Hense. “This year, for example, we received around 7,500 applications with a European Bachelor's background. That’s a lot.”

“When evaluating the credentials, it’s good to know that a student comes from an accredited higher education institution”, she continues. “With Studielink, we are implementing the automatic transfer of prior international education to our system. The system is also useful for data in management reports. It makes it fairly easy for us to see how people from a particular degree programme perform.”

'Education is different everywhere and is nationally oriented. But by exchanging information and sharing experiences we can start to work together.'

As far as Hense is concerned, the next step is to add more degree programmes to the list so that it becomes longer and broader. “We are currently starting out with a handful of degree programmes, but the more there are in the system, the more work it will save us. Nuffic is now an important backup for us when evaluating degrees and this knowledge is essential for automatic recognition. Nuffic can play an important role here, in my opinion.”

Discussions on cooperation and recognition in the EU have been ongoing for decades. This indicates that it isn’t easy. “It takes a long time to get 27 states to agree”, says Dijkink. “They are mostly expressed intentions. We will have to wait and see to find out how fast it all happens. As education is not a competence of the European Commission, it’s not possible to issue binding legislation. Education is different everywhere and is nationally oriented. Although the EU cannot issue hard legislation, by exchanging information and sharing experiences we can start to work together.”

Nuffic and automatic recognition


The Netherlands is at the forefront of automatic recognition in Europe. Nuffic is involved in two major projects that aim to improve national recognition structures. Automatic Recognition in the Networks (AR-Net) focuses on implementing automatic recognition in the European Union and the European Higher Education Area.

The project has yielded various results, including new guidelines for de facto automatic recognition, a policy paper on the portability of statements of recognition and updated practical tools to support compliance with the Lisbon Recognition Convention (LRC), such as EAR manuals on accreditation, the STREAM training platform and a quality assurance tool for the ENIC-NARIC networks.

Read more about AR-Net


I-Comply was launched last year in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science as a formal project leader. Measures to improve national recognition structures are being developed together with national authorities in Ukraine, Italy, Lithuania and Poland. By means of this project, Nuffic is implementing the 2018 European directive for the mutual recognition of qualifications. The I-Comply project aims to improve compliance with the Lisbon Recognition Convention by strengthening national and institutional recognition structures.

Read more about I-Comply


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