04 Feb 2015

Recognising qualifications of refugees: a Norwegian approach

Imagine moving to a new country. Maybe you have escaped from your home country in fear of what could happen to you. In your home country you were an engineer, philologist or maybe a geologist. You are knowledgeable and eager to contribute to the economy and society in your new country. Yet the chaotic situation in the country you are coming from makes it very difficult to get the proper documentation for what you are actually qualified to do.

Without proper documentation of studies, displaced persons and refugees are at a serious disadvantage both within the labour market and if they wish to pursue further studies. This blog article details the work of one agency in Norway in pioneering a new method of recognising the education level of those without official documentation.

General recognition procedures in Norway

The Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education (NOKUT) / Norwegian ENIC-NARIC has the authority to make decisions regarding general recognition of applicants with foreign higher education qualifications. NOKUT’s general recognition involves assessing the scope and level of foreign higher education qualifications in relation to the Norwegian higher education system. The qualifications can be awarded recognition in the form of credits and are assessed as being equivalent to an accredited Norwegian degree.

In order for NOKUT to be in a position to assess the qualifications awarded in a foreign country, the application must be adequately documented and, if necessary, verified by the place of study or the authorities in the country of origin; the link between identity and the education documents must be substantiated. This general recognition procedure is mainly intended to serve the Norwegian labour market.

A need for new recognition procedures

NOKUT’s general recognition is in ever-increasing demand in Norwegian business and industry, and NOKUT is experiencing strong growth in the number of individual applications. However, there is a group of applicants which falls outside the norm: applicants with qualifications from a country where the current political situation makes it impossible to verify the documentation in the normal way. These countries include Afghanistan, Iraq, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the period from 2004 to 2014, almost 1000 individuals were refused recognition by NOKUT on the grounds of non-verifiable documents.

Establishing a special recognition procedure

By ratifying The Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region (The Lisbon Convention), Norway has undertaken to establish a system for the recognition of qualifications held by refugees, displaced persons and persons in a refugee-like situation (Article VII). Since 2005, Norway has implemented a special recognition procedure for this group, whereby Norwegian higher education institutions are responsible for assessing the qualifications of persons who are not able to document their education. This scheme has not functioned satisfactorily in relation to the intentions, in particular with regard to equal treatment. For the sake of both the individual concerned, business and industry, and society at large, it is important to have a well-functioning recognition scheme for persons without verifiable documentation. By going through a recognition process based on a combination of documentation, reconstruction, tests, home assignments and academic debate, these individuals shall be in a position to be issued with a final decision from NOKUT that has formal status and value in relation to job opportunities and with a view to further studies and authorisation.

On the basis of experiences from the 2012 pilot project conducted by NOKUT in cooperation with Norwegian higher education institutions, and according to the recommendations stated in the European Area of Recognition Manual, Chapter 12: Refugees, NOKUT established a recognition procedure for persons without verifiable documentation in May 2013.The first formal decision according to the new procedure was issued in August 2013.

Five-stage model for recognising qualifications

NOKUT believes it is far more expedient and effective that academic assessments are carried out by expert committees commissioned and appointed by NOKUT. The recognition model consists of five stages:


In Stages 1–3 of this procedure, NOKUT carries out an assessment of the applicant’s qualifications and carries out a background check on language proficiency and residency permit in Norway. In Stage 3, NOKUT conducts a preliminary interview with applicants, and assesses motivation and prerequisites for completing the process. Thereafter, an expert committee is appointed. Such a committee ideally consists of two academics and one representative from NOKUT. Expert committees are appointed on an ongoing basis as and when the need arises. The work of the expert committees is made more effective by gathering a number of applicants with a similar background, so that they may be assessed by the same committee. The aim is to substantiate that the person in question has completed a foreign programme of higher education studies. The assessment consists of both written and oral elements in order to allow NOKUT to form a best possible picture of applicant’s educational background.

Positive results yielded since 2013

The group of individuals affected by the recognition procedure for persons without verifiable documentation is considerable in number. Since establishing the new procedure, NOKUT has received more than 400 individual applications. Annually is it estimated that NOKUT will need to handle 250 individual applications.

In the period from May 2013 to October 2014, almost 100 individuals – engineers, chemists, biologists, journalists, philologists, accountants – received a decision through NOKUT regarding general recognition based on the expert assessment. The higher education qualifications of more than 70 individuals were recognised at the level of Norwegian higher education. Of the first 25 applicants who received a positive decision from NOKUT in 2013, nearly 50% of those were able to establish themselves on the labour marked or be admitted to further studies at Norwegian higher education institutions.

NOKUT’s experience with the new recognition procedure so far has been positive: it is clear that the procedure leads to a more efficient use of resources for society, both with regards to cost and expertise. The procedure contributes towards better steering and quality assurance of the evaluation processes and ensures equal treatment of the applicants without verifiable documentation. The participants are finding that case procedures take less time, which is much for favourable for them. Society can also more rapidly benefit from the work skills and expertise of these individuals.


By Stig Arne Skjerven and Marina Malgina, Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education (NOKUT), Norway