Bryce Loo and Alejandro Ortiz, Research Associates at World Education Services
An alarming 60 million people – roughly equivalent to the population of Italy – were displaced by war, conflict or political repression in 2015. Among them were hundreds of thousands of skilled professionals and higher education students, most of whom have much (or all) of their careers still ahead of them. This population can contribute myriad skills and talents to their new host countries. But they cannot do so meaningfully unless their overseas education and professional backgrounds are fully recognized – a challenge given how many flee their countries with incomplete proof of training or educational attainment. To facilitate the integration of these newly displaced students and skilled professionals – and to ensure that displaced foreign applicants are qualified for placement or practice – institutions need alternate strategies.
In September 2015, WES began researching among leading institutions that have well-established policies and processes for verifying the educational and professional qualifications of skilled and educated refugees and asylum seekers. We initially focused on an extensive literature review. In early 2016, we began supplementing that research by interviewing relevant individuals at institutions in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe. As of the publication of this article, WES is revising its policies for offering an alternative assessment for refugees who lack verifiable documentation.
A brief overview of our findings may be of practical use to educational institutions, professional licensing and certification authorities, and employers who require assessment of foreign credentials and wish to develop or enhance their own policies. It is aimed both at those institutions who do their own credential assessments and those who accept external credential evaluation agency reports, particularly in Canada and the United States. Not all practices detailed here are used by all of our interview subjects. Each institution is unique and develops a process that works best for balancing its own needs and those of its applicants.
When verifiable credentials are unobtainable, how can institutions help refugees and other displaced persons make full use of their skills while also protecting themselves and members of the public who might be adversely affected if inadequately trained individuals are allowed to practice certain professions? Our research led us to identify six practices, or steps, which institutions, regulatory bodies, and employers could take into account as they establish new policies and procedures.
Step 1: Identifying applicants who are truly in need
Most institutional policies place significant importance on authenticated documents that are either sent directly from an applicant’s home institution or verified directly with them. However, applicants who have fled places of war or conflict often have difficulty obtaining such documents. Institutions are often destroyed, damaged, closed, or otherwise not functioning normally. Sometimes even functioning institutions in conflict zones do not answer verification inquiries or send official copies directly to institutions in other countries. And even when institutions are up, running and responsive, people fleeing war or political oppression often have well-founded reasons to avoid contact with institutions in their home countries. For instance, they may fear retribution from the government or others, whether to themselves or to their families who may still live in the country. The Scholars at Risk (SAR) Network, for example, has documented about 333 verifiable cases of violence, intimidation, or persecution of scholars in many countries around the world from January 2011 to May 2015. Students and other professionals often face similar threats.
That said, some refugees can obtain their documents using established procedures. The time involved for both institutional officers and for the applicant in performing an alternative assessment can be tremendous. The process is resource-intensive. In addition, applicants who are given an alternative assessment may not be able to be placed at the same level as if given a full credential evaluation from official, verifiable transcripts. Thus, institutions should do due diligence to ensure applicants are in genuine need of an alternative process. A relatively simple set of conversations can help screen for applicants who are truly in need:
- The first conversation simply reiterates the request that applicants follow standard practice by contacting their home institutions to send official documents directly to the institution of application.
- If applicants remain reluctant to act, institutions should offer applicants information that may incent them. This involves explaining the alternative process, which, as explained below, can be quite lengthy; and addressing the potential for poorer outcomes for the applicants. Usually, applicants who can obtain official documents will choose to do so.
- In some cases, institutions may obtain authorization of the applicant to contact home institutions directly.
If these steps fail to yield results, alternative methodologies come into play.
Step 2: Reconstructing an applicant’s background
In the best case scenario, applicants may have brought with them original copies, photocopies, or electronic copies of their entire transcripts. This provides applicants and institutions with the best possible alternative to officially verified documents. These documents may simply need some corroboration through some of the methods described later.
However, in cases where copies of documents are unavailable, a reconstruction of the applicant’s educational background is necessary. This exercise, which should be jointly conducted by the applicant and institutional officer, results in a background paper, sometimes also called an advisory statement. This official reconstruction is used for recognition purposes such as admission, course placement, or continuation through a licensing process. Once compiled, the background paper is corroborated with as many different forms of evidence as possible.
Depending on institutional context and the quality of documentation available, the process of constructing the background paper can take place in a variety of ways. For the sake of illustration, we’ll discuss the academic context: In the absence of full transcripts, whether original or photocopied, an institution will need to ask the applicant to reconstruct her educational background from memory. This can be done through an extensive application form, a sworn statement (described later), a phone or in-person interview, or some combination thereof. A partial transcript can also be useful. The initial draft becomes the individual’s claimed background, which then needs to be corroborated to the furthest extent possible.
In both the academic and professional contexts, the information that goes into a background paper may include:
- A reconstruction of the applicant’s education, including degrees and diplomas received, dates of attendance and graduation, courses taken, grades/marks, etc.
- Information about all relevant schools attended, including names, locations, accreditation information, etc.
- Information about the applicant’s relevant professional background (e.g., work experience, licensure, professional standing)
- A list of supporting evidence available to corroborate the information above
Step 3: Corroborating the applicant’s background
Once a background paper is constructed, institutions must corroborate the information. The resulting file, often known as a portfolio or dossier, should include as many forms of evidence as possible. As a rule of thumb: the more, the better. Evidence can come from both documentary and non-documentary sources such as sworn statements, witness statements, and assessments of competencies, all described in later sections.
Partial and non-official transcripts
Most applicants bring partial transcripts in some form, according to many of our sources. The experts we interviewed – and the literature we reviewed – characterize even incomplete, unofficial, or unverified transcripts as the best form of alternative evidence possible. In-house expertise, available sample documents, and research can help in determining the legitimacy of original or photocopied transcripts. However, best practice dictates that additional evidence and information should be used to corroborate such partial documents.
In the case of partial transcripts, institutions must try to corroborate an applicant’s claimed history in other ways. For countries where curriculum is standardized, such as higher education in Syria, it may be possible to backfill missing years or semesters. For example, if a student claims completion of two years of undergraduate education in Syria but can only present the second-year transcript, it can be assumed that he completed the first year; coursework from the first year can be backfilled using existing knowledge of the university coursework and collected sample transcripts. One important component that would be missing is grades.
In many instances, such “backfilling” is not possible, and institutions must take other steps to corroborate the applicant’s claims.
Alternative forms of documentary evidence
Often, when seeking additional sources of documentary evidence, the best course of action is to ask the applicant what she has available. Relevant documentary evidence may include:
- Diplomas and certificates of completion
- Student ID cards
- Published class, examination, or graduation lists
- Proof of payment of tuition
- Proof of admittance to state examinations
- Professional licenses or certificates
- Statements of professional standing or status issued by a regulatory body
Each document carries a different level of evidentiary weight. A student ID card, for example, only shows that a student was enrolled at some point in the institution but in many cases says nothing about dates of attendance and usually nothing about coursework, grades, or graduation. Thus, it alone would likely not be sufficient, but it can provide reinforcement to claims corroborated with other evidence.
Sworn statements, statutory declarations, affidavits
In compiling a portfolio, institutions may also ask applicants for a legally binding written statement. Such legally binding statements are referred to by various names: sworn statements, statutory declarations, or affidavits. (For the purposes of this article, we’ll call them “sworn statements.”) Many institutions do not accept sworn statements alone but generally require at least some other evidence to accompany it.
The process for obtaining sworn statements is relatively standard: The applicant is asked to narrate and describe his educational and professional history in as much detail as possible. That statement is then taken to a notary public or a lawyer, ideally in the host country, to be notarized or be given legal weight.
In many cases, institutions that accept sworn statements give detailed instructions to the applicant about what to include in the statement and how to have it notarized. Details vary based on the needs of the institution, but common elements include an explanation of the applicant’s circumstances, why he was unable to obtain official transcripts, and the educational information required to complete the profile.
Evaluators can determine if the description of the applicant’s background matches the reality of education in that country and at that institution, if known. Numerous or major discrepancies between the information provided in the sworn statement and known facts and realities about the educational system and current circumstances would required additional evidence from other sources or follow-up with the applicant. If the discrepancies cannot be accounted for, then the information in the sworn statement may not be reliable or useful.
Witness statements (sometimes called testimonials) or references can also be used to corroborate an applicant’s claims. There are some recommended practices from experts for gathering and accepting witness statements:
- Ask the applicant for a list of witnesses who can attest to major background claims, such as enrollment in or graduation from an institution.
- Develop a list of preferred types of witnesses. For example, prioritize school officials and teachers/professors over peers.
- Exclude relatives as potential witnesses.
- Provide the witness with clear instructions and a checklist of items to include in the statement.
- Allow the statement to be open-ended for opportunities to compare it against the applicant’s claims and the context.
- Instruct the witness to describe his or her relationship to the applicant, including how many years they have known each other.
- Ask the witness to provide evidence of his or her identity, if possible.
- Ask the witness to have the statement notarized or signed by a lawyer for further legal weight.
Witnesses can be school officials, professors, teachers, peers, colleagues, or employers. The number of witness statements to gather will likely depend on the degree to which each witness can contribute, the amount of other evidence the applicant can supply, and other factors.
Case Study: Witness Statements
The Pharmacy Examination Board of Canada (PEBC), which certifies all pharmacists and pharmacy technicians in Canada as a prerequisite for licensure in individual provinces and territories, has developed a novel approach. While applications from those who are unable to provide official documentation sent directly from the issuing institution are rare, PEBC is able to assist these individuals by offering an alternative route via witnesses, along with other supporting evidence. PEBC can use its database of all pharmacists certified in Canada to find potential licensed witnesses who attended the same institution as the applicant at roughly the same time. These individuals then are asked if they can attest to the enrollment or graduation of the applicant. These witnesses are very likely to provide a truthful, accurate statement because of the potential impact on their certification and licensure in Canada. When PEBC is unable to find enough witnesses in its database, it will often ask the applicant to supply names and contacts of certified pharmacists in Canada, or in rare cases the United States, who can attest to some of the individual’s claims. If the applicant is able to pass this portion of the certification process, she then would need to sit for the certification examinations required of international applicants and continue through the process as normal.
(Source: John Pugsley, interview, February 2016)
Step 4: Assessing the evidence
Once assembled, the background paper should be assessed using the portfolio or dossier – the assembled documentary evidence, including any statements from the applicant and witnesses. At this point, the evaluator can then make a preliminary determination and decide if more information is needed.
Background research and resources are crucial for assessing non-official academic records, sworn statements, witness statements, and other documents. Such resources include:
- In-house expertise on particular countries and education systems (knowledge of relevant languages is especially helpful)
- A database of verified sample documents against which non-official transcripts and other documents can be compared.
- Original research on the situation in a particular country and institution.
- Where applicable, research on the applicant’s background, particularly through social media sites such as LinkedIn and Academia.edu (for scholars).
- External resources and expertise, including those publicly available from WES.
Step 5: Assessing competencies
Documentary evidence is one thing, but skills are altogether a different matter. To further corroborate the applicant’s claims or to ensure proper placement, institutions may opt to assess applicants’ competencies. Such assessments can provide an in-depth understanding of an applicant’s skills and knowledge to aid in both academic decisions (including admission and specific placements) and in professional licensing and hiring decisions. Depending on context, assessments may entail:
- Interviews with one or more professors, experts, or experienced professionals in the relevant discipline can help determine readiness for a specific program or profession.
- Sample work, particularly published work, may be another good tool for assessing competence and achievement, particularly for scholars and researchers, as well as some higher level students (e.g., PhD candidates). The Scholars at Risk (SAR) Network, which places displaced and threatened scholars in host institutions particularly in North America and Europe, requires sample work from applicants.
- Special projects involve giving assignments to applicants to assess their skills and knowledge in a particular field. The project can be a paper (either research-based or not), a presentation, or another type of project to be assessed by a faculty member (or a panel) once completed. The faculty member or panel can then make a recommendation about admission or placement.
- Skills assessments (or skills audits) give applicants the opportunity to demonstrate relevant skills, sometimes through simulation activities. For example, nurses or nursing students may be asked to demonstrate specific nursing skills, such as taking a patient’s blood pressure and administering medication intravenously.
Case Study: NOKUT and Credential Assessment for Refugees in Norway
Norway has been a leader both in Europe and worldwide in the assessment and recognition of refugee credentials. NOKUT is Norway’s main agency for international education and is in charge of foreign credential assessment for the entire country. Unlike in Canada and the U.S., Norway’s approach to foreign credential assessment is centralized. NOKUT is responsible for conducting all assessments for foreign educated individuals for general recognition purposes, namely for employment in non-regulated fields and for admission to higher education. Prior to 2011, Norwegian higher education institutions were each responsible for initial assessment of refugee credentials, which was not optimal. Thus, from 2011 to 2012, NOKUT conducted a pilot project on credential assessment for refugees and others lacking verifiable documentation. The procedure was then scaled up to full national implementation in 2013, centralized through NOKUT, and is called the UVD (uten verifiserbar dokumentasjon) procedure.
The general procedure goes as follows:
- The applicant first applies for general recognition and then is referred to the UVD procedure.
- NOKUT then reconstructs the applicant’s background and suitability for further assessment, including language abilities and legal status within Norway.
- NOKUT conducts a preliminary interview with the candidate for an initial assessment and then appoints a committee of experts and one NOKUT official for assessment of level and placement of the applicant.
- The committee assesses the qualifications of the applicant using written and oral methods and evaluates him or her using set criteria.
- NOKUT makes the final assessment and decision regarding general recognition.
While the strong decentralized nature of credential assessment in North America limits the transferability of many of NOKUT’s policies, there is much that can be learned from this procedure. NOKUT has been able to use methods other than verifiable documents to assess the qualifications of refugees and other such applicants successfully. In the first year and a half, NOKUT was able to apply this procedure for over 100 individuals of various national and professional backgrounds, many of whom were able to return their fields of specialty or access Norwegian higher education.
(Source: Stig Arne Skjerven & Marina Malgina, personal communication, February 2016)
- Examinations, ranging from large-scale aptitude tests (e.g., SAT, GRE) to individual course challenge exams can assess competencies. There are also exams that offer degree and credit recognition, such as the GED (General Education Development) for high school graduation equivalence and CLEP (College Level Examination Program) for college-level credit. In cases of strong performance in subjects that are sequential in nature, such as mathematics or languages, institutions may award credits and allow students to be exempted from lower level coursework.
Step 6: Recognition and admittance: Putting the pieces together
The final step in the admissions, licensure, certification, or hiring process is assessing the compiled evidence of the applicant’s claimed background to determine the level of recognition that will be awarded. The goal should be to grant as much recognition as the evidence warrants. However, the likelihood of significant gaps in records and evidence realistically means that institutions may not be able to grant full recognition of an individual’s entire claimed background.
That said, alternative forms of recognition can be considered:
- Alternative recognition recognizes the applicant’s experience as sufficient for a different qualification than the one of application. For instance, an applicant with a claimed educational and professional history as a doctor may be allowed to work in a different position within the medical field or be retrained into nursing.
- Conditional recognition allows the applicant to enter a program on the condition that she meets future requirements, such as taking certain courses and receiving specific minimum grades. For example, a student may be admitted into the second year of an undergraduate architectural program provided that she passes all second-year courses in the first semester with at least a B. While this form of recognition may not be feasible for a regulatory body, employers in non-regulated fields may be able to hire a refugee employee on a probationary basis and allow him to demonstrate his abilities in the first few weeks or months on the job.
- Partial recognition in an academic context recognizes the evidence presented as part of a full-degree program, rather than the entire degree program. The applicant would then have the opportunity to take any remaining courses or enter into a dedicated education or training program. In this case, for example, a job applicant may claim to hold an MBA from her home country but only part of her graduate program can be substantiated. Thus, she is required to retake some graduate-level courses before her MBA is recognized.
- Partial recognition for employment in an unregulated profession can mean offering an internship, or a junior or entry-level position for which the person may be over-qualified. Referral to a job development program or an accelerated schedule of performance reviews provides ways for the applicant to demonstrate additional competencies and career potential.
For applicants receiving alternative or partial recognition, bridging programs can help them retrain in order to return to their original professions. For example, in the UK, the Building Bridges Program works to retrain refugees in London to reenter their respective professions in the medical field by starting in a lower-level position, a practice sometimes known as career laddering.
The end goal of this work is about more than credentials. It’s about helping displaced students and professionals – people who have fled their homes in the most dire of circumstances – make the best possible use of their training and skills in their new host countries. To that end, new policies and procedures for assessing applicants should be applied in a compassionate manner. Specifically, institutions should:
- Be understanding of the unique and difficult circumstances in which each applicant finds him- or herself.
- Develop flexible, transparent policies that permit consideration of each individual case on its merits.
- Consider the cost of application and credential assessment for refugee applicants, who often arrive in their host countries with little or no money and must rely on limited government or private financial support for a time. When possible, reduce or eliminate fees.
- Make instructions simple and clear for non-native speakers, but also make them comprehensive so that portfolios and assessments are accurate, timely, and complete.
- Consider that although degrees from other countries are never exactly the same, they can be considered equivalent. For instance, there may be some gaps in technical knowledge and skill (e.g., proficiency with advanced medical technologies in Western countries not found in many developing countries) and knowledge of culture-specific practices and institutions (e.g., Canadian or U.S. business practices) even among the best educated and most skilled.
- When advising, admitting, and placing potential students, think about the long-term picture for many of these applicants, particularly in regards to admission and placement. What types of support services will they need? What types of financing options are available? Such realities should be taken into consideration.
Lack of proper academic records is a barrier to integration for a generation of displaced students and professionals. But it is one that can be fairly simply overcome by applying some measures designed to validate education and professional experience in the absence of formal documentation. Institutions and organizations in Europe, Canada, and the United States have welcomed refugees in the past despite serious limitations in the quality of the educational documentation that is available. Additionally, many around the world have concluded that recognition of educational and professional qualifications is a basic human right. The educational and professional experience of educated refugees can be broadly leveraged by institutions and employers across North America so that these talented individuals can reach their fullest potential in their new host countries.
 WES policy has been to only evaluate credentials that are sent directly by the academic institution to guarantee authenticity of documents, a practice which presents significant and sometimes insurmountable challenges to some refugees.
 For sake of simplicity, we will largely use the term “institutions” to refer to all who regularly assess and recognize foreign credentials, including higher education institutions, regulatory bodies, and employers.
 As these are only verifiable cases, the actual number of such cases is likely tremendously higher, as noted by SAR.