Evaluating Three-Year Degrees from Europe: Why Is This Still an Issue?

 

IEM SPOTLIGHT NEWSLETTER, VOL. 14, Summer ISSUE - August 2017

By: Jessica Stannard, NUFFIC

The Bologna Declaration of 1999 and the ensuing Bologna Process have brought about many changes in higher education across Europe; the most obvious being the alignment of more than 48 different higher education systems into a uniform system consisting of a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral level. According to the Bologna Declaration, the “first cycle” bachelor’s degree lasts a minimum of three years. As a complete degree, it offers students the required knowledge and skills to either seek employment or prepare them for graduate study.

The three-year bachelor’s degree is not a new phenomenon; in fact, it has been the norm for centuries in many countries around the world that base their educational structure on the British system. Three-year programs were introduced as early as 2002 in many countries belonging to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), and a generation of students has already studied and graduated unaware of, or at least indifferent to, the pre-Bologna degrees. Even though European institutions have been awarding three-year degrees for 10 to 12 years, they are still viewed as “new” by many professionals involved in foreign admission in the United States, and the discussion continues on about whether or not they should be considered comparable to four-year U.S. bachelor’s degrees.

From a European standpoint, it is surprising that this discussion is still going on and that the main focus of the resistance to accepting three-year degrees centers on duration. An evaluating authority in any country may have justifiable reasons for not accepting foreign bachelor’s degrees as equivalent to the ones awarded in the evaluator’s country. According to the methodology of the Lisbon Recognition Convention (LRC), however, the reasons should be based on differences in level, quality, workload, profile, and learning outcomes, and only in some cases, on duration.

The LRC is the most important instrument facilitating fair recognition and mobility in the EHEA today and defines what is considered to be good practice regarding the criteria and procedures used to evaluate foreign qualifications. The LRC dates back to 1997, and for the past 20 years, the principles it stands for have come to form a common base in the field of academic recognition, resulting in a common means of communication and understanding among professionals in the field.

One of the difficulties in evaluating foreign qualifications is that there are always differences between educational systems that somehow must be reconciled. An evaluating authority can, of course, reconcile these differences by choosing not to accept certain credits, i.e., by doing a course-by-course evaluation and awarding credit only for the subjects that closely match the domestic curriculum. However, this methodology is contrary to the one advocated by the LRC. The guiding principle of the LRC is that every legitimate foreign qualification should be recognized, and only substantial differences should prevent an evaluating authority from recognizing a foreign degree as fully equivalent to one awarded in the evaluator’s country.

Not surprisingly, a term as vague and subjective as “substantial” invites discussion and is open to a variety of interpretations. There is consensus, however, that a difference should be considered substantial when it prevents the individual from being successful in pursuing the next step, be it further studies, research, or employment. The focus of the LRC methodology is therefore on the learning outcomes, i.e., determining if the student’s educational background has provided him or her with the knowledge and competencies that are comparable to those of the domestic students. The number of years required to obtain those skills is of less importance.

Examples of possible substantial differences could be the lack of training in research skills at the undergraduate level in the case of a student applying to a master’s program with a focus on research, or a student who has completed an ordinary bachelor’s degree applying for admission to a master’s program in a country that requires an honors degree for admission. In both cases, the difference in learning outcomes could be cited as substantial differences. Furthermore, in the second case, the difference in purpose could also be mentioned to justify the discrepancy; the ordinary degree isn’t intended to prepare students for direct admission to the graduate level and could therefore be considered substantially different from the degree in the evaluator’s country that does qualify for admission to graduate school. It is important to remember that these differences could be considered substantial, but the evaluator is under no obligation to do so. The evaluation process, including determining which differences are substantial and which are not, depends on the environment in which the evaluator is working, i.e., the educational system of his/her country and the institutional requirements that may exist.

How does all of this tie into the three-year degree? Obviously there’s a difference in length between the three- and four-year degrees. If U.S. evaluators who don’t accept the three-year degree are under obligation to apply the LRC, they would then have to explain and justify their reasons for doing so. This “reversed burden of proof” is one of the principles of the LRC, thus making it the evaluator’s responsibility to justify the outcome of the evaluation.

Not every bachelor’s program is the same, and as mentioned earlier, there are several reasons why one bachelor’s degree may not be considered equivalent or comparable to another. If the difference in duration is the main reason for not accepting the degree as equivalent however, there is always the possibility that capable and qualified students will be rejected. There is also the risk of an unfair evaluation if the purpose and learning outcomes of a qualification in the country of origin aren’t taken into consideration. While this is anecdotal evidence, in discussions with U.S. colleagues, it has come to light more than once that the three-year research-oriented bachelor’s degrees awarded by research universities in the Netherlands have less of a chance of being accepted for admission to U.S. graduate schools than the four-year bachelor’s degrees awarded by universities of applied sciences. The only reason given is the extra year of study. While both degrees should be considered for graduate admission in the United States, the implication that graduates of three-year programs are less qualified than graduates of four-year programs is completely at odds with how the two degrees are viewed in the Netherlands. In many cases, graduates of a university of applied sciences in the Netherlands must complete a bridge program to prepare them for admission to a master’s program at a Dutch research university, while the three-year bachelor’s degree grants direct access. This misinterpretation of the two bachelor’s degrees could be avoided if learning outcomes and the function of the degrees were taken into consideration.

Professionals in the field of credential evaluation and recognition all over the world play a crucial role in facilitating student mobility and fair recognition practice. There are, of course, institutions in the United States that are willing to consider graduates of international three-year bachelor’s degree programs for admission. It would be interesting to hear and share their experiences. If, in general, these students perform well, are academically prepared for graduate-level work, and possess the skills necessary to succeed, it would be a lost opportunity on both sides if admission were denied based solely on the number of years that a student engaged in undergraduate study. Thus, it is encouraged that U.S. evaluation authorities who do not currently accept the three-year degree seriously examine the possibility that a three-year bachelor’s degree could be comparable to a U.S. four-year degree in terms of level, profile, purpose, and learning outcomes.


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