Faced with a flood of refugees, Norway has tested a new fast-track procedure to evaluate the qualifications of those who arrive in the country without proper documentation of their academic degrees or professional certificates. This process should allow them to begin studying or working much sooner than has been possible up to now. The aim is to avoid months or years of forced inactivity for such asylum seekers and speed their integration into Norwegian society.
In a pilot project completed in May, authorities used the new procedure to issue a new type of document called a “Qualifications Passport for Refugees” to twenty asylum seekers. Norway is working with other European countries to get them to adopt the new system.
Last year saw a mass exodus of refugees from Syria into Europe. Norway welcomed more than 31,000 asylum seekers from Syria and other countries—nearly three times more than the previous year. But up to now, those who lack proof of the studies they have completed or don’t speak Norwegian or English have been left out of the country’s efforts to integrate them.
“More and more people were falling through the cracks,” says Stig Arne Skjerven, director of foreign education at the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education (NOKUT). “The situation last year showed that we had to really rethink our tools.”
Following the successful testing of the new “qualifications passport,” Norwegian officials say they will now introduce it widely.
The new “passport” contains information about the applicant’s highest completed academic or professional qualification, work experience and language proficiency, as well as details about the documents and sources on which the individual assessment was based.
It also provides advice and guidance about the next steps the refugee can take to further their education or training, or seek a job. Unlike the older procedure, which takes three to six months and costs Norway on average $5,500 per applicant, the new procedure produces the “passports” within five days and at one-tenth of the cost.
The “passport” is based on an evaluation of any available documentation and a structured interview with the applicant, carried out by experienced case officers.
In addition, as needed, officials consult Norwegian refugee archives and other sources, such as databases, reference books, and colleagues in other countries, to verify candidates’ claims.
Unlike the older, more time-consuming mechanism, the “passport” can be awarded to refugees who don’t speak Norwegian or English, don’t have permanent residence in Norway, and did not finish their studies because they had to flee their homeland. And unlike the older recognition document, the “passport” does not necessarily qualify holders to enroll in a university study program—at least not right away.
The “passport” is only designed to provide temporary support to asylum seekers; it is valid for three years. But representatives from higher education, employers, and refugee agencies—who were consulted as part of the pilot project—said it appears to be a useful tool.
“We firmly believe the best way to integrate those who have had their university studies interrupted is to provide access into our education system,” says Ole Petter Ottersen, rector [president] of the University of Oslo, Norway’s leading institution. “This has been a major objective of our university since last fall.”
Ottersen says the “passport” will help support initiatives his institution already began several months ago.
Oslo has created an “Academic Practice Program,” which is intended for refugees who have already earned at least one degree and want to enter graduate studies. The refugees, who may not even have the needed language skills, are accepted into an internship program without being enrolled as students. They become part of a research team and are given a combination of academic and administrative duties. The team can evaluate their academic competencies, opening up the possibility of their being able to take classes and even exams. The goal is to allow the refugees to “get acquainted with our university studies and make it easier for them to enroll later,” says Ottersen.
Oslo has also created an “Academic Network” mentoring program in which its students accompany and tutor refugees who are interested in enrolling as undergraduates when they are able. (See a related article, European Universities Seek to Integrate Refugees.)
Ottersen stresses that for all its readiness to welcome refugee students, the university is not prepared to lower its academic requirements for them. “The worst thing would be to accept students who lack proper qualifications,” he says. “That would make their risk of failure much greater” than if nothing were done to help them.
Norway’s businesses appear favorable to the new “qualifications passports” too. The information the passports contain can help companies identify refugee candidates—for example for semi-skilled jobs, even if their qualifications for skilled jobs can’t be verified.
“Our companies need qualified workers at many levels,” says Are Turmo, director for education and skills at the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO), Norway’s main employers’ association. “The passports also communicate what further training an applicant needs.”
Norway recently began working with several other countries in a European Union program to create a “Toolkit for Recognition for Refugees.” The aim is to get European countries to adopt common procedures for assessing academic and professional qualifications that would be recognized by all European countries. Norway is proposing its fast-track assessment procedure to be adopted as a “European Qualifications Passport.”
Under the 1997 Lisbon Convention [on the recognition of qualifications concerning higher education in the European region], adopted by most European nations, countries have the obligation to take reasonable steps to assess whether refugees fulfill the requirements for access to higher education.
Yet a report this year by UNESCO and the Council of Europe found that less than one-fifth of European countries have any mechanism for evaluating the qualifications of refugees who lack proper documentation.
At the same time, the number of persons who could benefit from such procedures has grown sharply over the last year. Helena Lindholm, pro vice-chancellor of the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden, and a leading European voice for integration measures for refugees, recently estimated there are 55,000 young Syrians in Europe who would normally be in university if they had not had to flee the war in their country.