Guide for Academic Institutions
The broadly-accepted principle of the autonomy of Universities, and other higher education institutions, provides for concrete decisions on recognition – for academic reasons – to be taken by institution themselves which, however, must abide by international law (the Conventions) as well as national legislation which – normally – transposes and implements the Conventions into national law. Quite often, academic institutions have a dedicated office or group of experts which takes care of verifying qualifications and procedures for recognition.
We must mention that conventions and agreements on recognition apply the principle of reciprocity, which can lead to thornier questions regarding substantial differences, in particular in study areas that are closer to non-ecclesiastical studies (e.g., non-Catholic “theologies”, psychology, pedagogy, and partly also philosophy). This means that ecclesiastical Faculties asking for their studies to be recognized in a national higher education system (for example, in Italy), must (in their student admission practices and when evaluating their skills) also evaluate studies completed by students in non-ecclesiastical Faculties, or at least in comparable domains. If studies carried out elsewhere cannot be recognized, the Faculty must prove the substantial difference existing between their study program and studies offered elsewhere.
Here you can find some rules for recognition that might be useful to Academic Institutions when they have to evaluate qualifications, diplomas, and degrees submitted by students who would like to continue their studies with them. Please notice that the rules for recognition that are reported here refer to the purposes of the Lisbon Convention.
Rules for recognition:
1) Conventions on recognition establish the right of every individual to have their degrees evaluated, prohibiting any discrimination based on sex, race, color, disability, language, religion, political opinion, national, ethnic, or social origin, membership in minority groups, wealth, birth, or other civil status.
The first rule is crystal clear: degree recognition must occur exclusively based on an adequate evaluation of acquired knowledge and skills, irrespective of other factors that have nothing to do with degrees’ value.
2) The second rule states that procedures and criteria used for foreign degree evaluation and recognition must be "transparent, consistent, and reliable". Therefore, entities that recognize foreign degrees have to make their evaluation criteria public (transparency). Such criteria must be certain and not discretionary; this means that they must apply to applicants without any major difference between one institution and the other (consistency). Lastly, evaluation criteria must be based on valid principles that are shared by the international scientific community, and abide by principles of good practice (reliability).
3) The third rule states that decisions to recognize foreign degrees must be made based on adequate information. The responsibility to provide useful information belongs to the applicant and the university that has issued that degree. Information must adequately describe the nature of the institution that issued the degree, the features of the study course followed by the student, and the value of the diploma. Furthermore, information must be provided "in good faith." In this way, the entity that carries out the evaluation is able to correctly determine, and prove if necessary, that the applicant does not meet requirements or has provided false or misleading data.
4) The fourth rule refers to process duration and the possibility to appeal against denials. The Convention states that decisions on recognition must be made within a “reasonable” timeframe. The final text approved in Lisbon addressed the concerns expressed by many countries and did not set a specific limit. Therefore, member countries independently determine the maximum duration of the process. For the sake of transparency, when a degree is not recognized, the decision must be motivated and possible alternative procedures must be indicated. If recognition is not granted, or no decision is made, applicants must be able to appeal an authority that is defined by national legislation.
Elements that must be verified are:
1) The authenticity and completeness of submitted documents (deeper inquiries on document authenticity are needed only in case of serious doubts or if evident abnormalities appear in the parchment diplomas, etc.).
2) The reason why recognition is sought – also considering the canonical effects that are related to the studies and academic degrees that students want to have recognized;
3) The legal status of the institution and its programs and degrees:
- either within the national system they belong to (for non-ecclesiastical higher studies): approval/accreditation of the institution and its programs;
- or within the ecclesiastical higher education system (for ecclesiastical higher studies); canonical approval (the point must always be made that, in order to issue any academic degree with canonical value, the explicit approval of the Congregation for Catholic Education is required).
4) The following questions must always be asked:
a) does the institution that has delivered the courses, verified the results, and issued related Diplomas/Degrees belong to a national and legal Higher Education System that is internationally recognized? Does the Institution, and its programs and academic degrees, correspond to the related education system, its legislation and specificities? (The last questions are particularly important when educational activities are organized in a different country than the one where the diploma is issued).
b) Were the Institution and study program in question approved and accredited by a lawful and internationally recognized “competent national authority” with legal power over its own educational system?
c) Is the quality of the institution and its program maintained, verified, and developed regularly and according to transparent and internationally agreed criteria and procedures? What is the relevant Verification Body (Quality Agency)? And based on what criteria and procedures does it work?
5) Types of documents to be submitted:
a) a degree that allows for admission into universities or other higher education programs – in many countries such degrees are extremely diversified, and often only allow students to access limited study courses;
or, in alternative,
b) statements or certificates that refer to studies pursued in institutions that are not entitled to grant academic degrees;
or, in alternative,
c) statements or certificates that refer to studies (that were not completed) pursued in institutions that are entitled to grant academic degrees, when students did not actually obtained any such degree;
or, in alternative,
d) diplomas or parchments that prove that an academic degree was actually obtained – focusing on the question whether that degree has any canonical effect/value;
or, in alternative,
e) other kinds of documents.
Based on document verification and comparisons between studies, degrees, qualifications, skills, etc. - either carried out or obtained – then decisions are made or opinions are given regarding recognition, based on the principle that a negative decision is justified only when substantial differences have emerged between submitted studies, degrees, qualifications, skills, etc. and those that are comparable (or required) within the Holy See’s education system, and which are regulated by Institutions’ statutes. In case of negative decisions, the burden of the proof is on the competent authority that is taking care of the recognition procedure.
The domains where substantial differences can prevent, prohibit, or influence recognition refer to:
1) Level (1st; 2nd; 3rd cycle).
2) Students’ workload which, in the Europe region, is expressed in terms of “ECTS” credits – however, it is advisable not to base substantial differences only on study duration or students’ workload, without considering learning outcomes and qualifications that have actually been achieved, although in a shorter time or with less credits than we are normally used to.
3) Learning Outcomes
4) The quality of relevant institutions and their programs (“accreditation” and quality assurance measures).
The (final) decision in the recognition procedure must be transparent, consistent with the above-mentioned laws and principles as well as with similar decisions, and must be explained to the student – with indications on what to do to file an appeal. Basically, the following decisions are possible:
a) full recognition;
b) partial recognition (only a part of studies, degrees, qualifications, skills, etc. that were carried out or obtained is recognized);
c) conditional recognition (students must provide additional evidence or follow a specific number of courses or carry out other activities to obtain full or partial recognition);
d) non-recognition (seems to be justified only in a few cases).
In any case, not only are students entitled to be informed about the result, but of the right way ahead in order for them to obtain recognition later or after having met specific requirements.
“Substantial Differences” between Ecclesiastical and Non-Ecclesiastical Studies
Great attention must be devoted to the appropriate use of the notion of “substantial differences” when comparing ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical studies, in the following cases:
a) other Catholic ecclesiastical “theological” (and “similar”) studies, that are often recognized and approved by a Bishop or religious Superior, but without the approval of the Congregation for Catholic Education and, therefore, not recognized within our higher education system (that is regulated by the Apostolic Constitution Sapientia christiana)
In particular, there are Catholic Universities (cf. the specific norms of the Apostolic Constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae) and/or major Seminaries in a number of nations, where higher studies of Catholic theology are pursued (together with related subjects). Such institutions, although they are recognized and accredited in their own countries, sometimes with related academic degrees, are not part of the higher education system under the authority of the Holy See, and therefore do not lead to the acquisition of academic degrees with canonical value. However, under the principle of reciprocity enshrined in international Conventions, the Holy See is obliged to recognize such studies, if no ”substantial difference” between the two types of studies is proven.
In order to allow for consistent and correct practices, that do not encumber students with unjustified burdens, but also respect the rigorousness of the Holy See’s academic system, until a more specific regulation is issued by the Holy See on this point, reference must be made to the Congregation’s Recognition Office to agree on the right practices.
b) Theological (and similar) studies of other Christian denominations and other “theological” studies.
The principles stemming from international Conventions on recognition signed by the Holy See mandate an evaluation of possible substantial differences also with respect to higher confessional studies of other Christian denominations, and other non-Christian faiths. It would be too simplistic, and not in line with the principles enshrined in the above-mentioned conventions (that the Holy See upholds in its own favor when dealing with other States), to define the difference between confessions and religions as “substantial” per se, without an in-depth analysis the epistemology and the contents of the various “theological” studies.
First of all, a fair and diligent evaluation must consider studies’ academic level, workload/duration, profile, (verified and assured) quality, and learning outcomes as such, and then look into individual courses and contents. In this cases too, it is best to resort to the Congregation’s competent and authoritative Recognition Office.
In order to evaluate (on a case by case basis) to what extent, and under what conditions, non-Catholic or non-Christian academic studies in Theology (and similar sciences) can be (at least partially or conditionally) recognized (we are mostly thinking about converted individuals who are highly qualified in non-Catholic theological or other ecclesiastical studies), the following elements must be explicitly ascertained:
- the denomination or religion’s fundamental “creed”, shared aspects, and differences with Catholic doctrine;
- the relationship between faith and reason as the basis of scientific theology and the place held by related “sciences” within university sciences in the Academic Institutions that teach them;
- the position of the above-mentioned studies in the higher education system of the country where Institutions are located, and the relationship between State and “Church” with respect to related confessions;
- the basic texts that act as references and the principles for their interpretation;
- possible agreements and/or other ecumenical initiatives; the evaluation of “Catholic” theology by the academic institutions that are involved;
- the definition, importance, and practical application of “institutional (university) autonomy of Theological Faculties and “academic freedom” (in research and teaching activities) related to “confessional” sciences.
Usually, in these cases, the candidate’s specific resume must be taken into account, as well as the canonical effects for which recognition is sought in a very specific and subjective situation.