2016 – Fifth Annual Groningen Declaration Network Meeting, Cape Town, South Africa

Announcing Fifth Annual Groningen Declaration Network Meeting

A Digital World for All: Making Skills Mobile, 17-19 May 2016 in Cape Town.

The 2016 Annual Groningen Declaration Network (GDN) Meeting, was hosted by the South African Qualifications Authority SAQA in close cooperation with the GDN’s main conveners DUOAACRAO and the National Student Clearinghouse. Invited delegates assembled at the Protea Hotel Breakwater Lodge, located at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business. The campus is based at the lush foothills of Cape Town’s landmark Table Mountain, providing magnificent views of the  City, Cape and Atlantic Ocean,  including Cape Town’s iconic V&A Waterfront.

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Executive Summary
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Evaluation of the GDN meeting

Personal Impressions

Personal Impressions, by Anna Glass
As a scholar and a professional consultant in international higher education, Anna Glass works to promote the fundamental principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy at universities throughout the world.

Spreading the News

The Groningen Declaration is coming into its own. Only a year ago, word had not yet spread far beyond Network members and their colleagues; now, there is a European Union project proposal to revise the Diploma Supplement throughout the European Higher Education Area, and a critical element is digitalisation, with direct reference to the work of the Groningen Declaration Network. Many in the higher education field have come to understand the need for reliable and secure digitalisation of student data, and the groundwork already laid out by the GDN will be instrumental to the work ahead.

Clear Ideals

At the fifth annual meeting of the GDN, hosted by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) on 17 to 19 May 2016, participants agreed that the tools for digitalisation are at hand and need only to be put to use: We already have the technology; we just need the cooperation and communication to make use of it. Once again, the commitment and enthusiasm of the people working at the technical level to improve student mobility and qualifications transparency were openly apparent among the meeting’s participants. And once again, as a person privileged to attend the event, I was persuaded that the noble goals and sincere intentions of the technicians and experts working in student data are the defining characteristics of this Network.

As disillusionment in the Bologna Process persists — as long as the goals of harmonisation and transparency are revealed in practice to be aspirational targets at best and, at worst, superficial rebranding — we can acknowledge that higher education reforms are very slow to take hold when they are handed down as decisions from the Ministry. More than fifteen years after the 29 signatures garnered in 1999, experience tells us that, while objectives may be identified as top-down mandates, international networks of experts and technicians are needed to start and steer the work of making mobility a working reality. This is what the founders of the GDN have done, and what each new member of the Network takes forward upon signing the Groningen Declaration.

Local and Global Mandates

For the fifth annual GDN meeting, SAQA had large shoes to fill, following the success of last year’s meeting in Málaga. Happily for the participants, the venue and programme in Cape Town left little to be desired. From the location near the V&A Waterfront to the warm hospitality and beautiful surroundings, the work programme was framed so participants could meet and connect with each other amidst examples of local history and entrepreneurialism. The courtesy and dignity of our hosts emphasised the human dimension of our work in higher education, so often obscured by bureaucratic language and political correctness.

Yet, always, the human dimension — the struggle of each person to gain skills and acquire recognition of his or her qualifications — is closely tethered with broad political goals. At this meeting, representatives from UNESCO confirmed the importance and centrality of the GDN to the establishment and success of the planned Global Convention on recognition of academic qualifications. This new UNESCO Convention will share a key common objective with the GDN: facilitating student mobility. Based on the six existing regional Conventions on recognition, the Global Convention will take into consideration that recognition in higher education is a craft and a system unto itself. The most successful regional Convention — the Lisbon Convention — offers examples of good practice, namely national centres for recognition practice and deliberate capacity building among recognition experts. The Global Convention is intended as a framework for handling the massification of higher education and ever-increasing mobility of students and graduates, but it can only be successful if the daily and technical work of recognition is conducted by people with the knowledge and skills to do it well.

Real Challenges

As a tool to enable mobility, digital student data has to be handled with great care. While the technology is readily available, the key factors are security and trustworthiness. Good practices in security might be found at various organisations, including the United States’ National Student Clearinghouse, and in established practices. Trustworthiness of data goes back to the legitimacy of the institution granting the degree or academic credits and the authenticity of the document presented for recognition (Is the diploma real and based on actual academic work by the person named therein?). Recognition experts have techniques to determine the trustworthiness of documents; the task ahead is to support recognition experts (recognition authorities) in accepting digital data sets, in lieu of paper documents, as the original source with which to process incoming applications.

With the massification of higher education and the increased value of higher education diplomas, it is more important than ever for degrees to be verified and officially recognised. The more demand there is for valuable diplomas, the more lucrative it becomes to cheat the system. As knowledge societies that rely on the veracity of higher education diplomas for our institutions and systems to function properly, we cannot afford to let corruption tarnish the qualifications people with real skills are bringing to their jobs. Meanwhile, using a paper-based system is unrealistic given the number of people and the amount of data to be assessed and reviewed. Digitalisation is inevitable, so we had better make sure the systems we develop for student data are as secure and reliable as possible.

Growing the Network

The Groningen Declaration Network started out very modestly, with just eleven signatories in 2012. With the newest 12 signatories in Cape Town this May, the Network now boasts 53 signatory organisations. The work of the GDN has been coordinated by Herman de Leeuw – originator of the Declaration, one of the founders of the Network, and Executive Secretary of the GDN. While the Network has grown steadily and solid work has been done thus far, discussions at the fifth annual meeting included, necessarily, the framework for the GDN going forward, including the establishment of the Network as a non-profit entity. It certainly seems, based on the progression and work to date, that establishing a legal structure and programme of work around the GDN could only further contribute to its goal of establishing a global area of convergence on digital student data depositories to make free movement of students and skilled workers a reality.

GDN events and meetings are still rather exclusive — by invitation only — but participation is expanding. At the meeting in Cape Town, about half of the nearly 100 participants were newcomers to the Network. The intention is still to expand as widely as possible while remaining functional, task-oriented and results-driven. The Network is attentive and responsive to inquiries for information and requests to participate in future events.

For information, visit the GDN website.

Related article: Malaga: Personal Impressions of the 4th Annual GDN Meeting.

Post-Event Feedback from Cape Town

About a hundred invited education stakeholders attended the fifth annual Groningen Declaration Meeting held at the Protea Hotel Breakwater Lodge, Graduate School of Business University of Cape Town, South Africa from 17-19 May 2016. This year’s meeting was graciously hosted by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA). I was fortunate to have been invited to make the trek to Cape Town, even though it was sacrificing a full week in the endeavor. The opportunity did not disappoint. From the onset of landing late Monday evening and navigating the short taxi ride to the hotel, I felt compelled to get as much out of this trip and meeting as I had in the previous meeting I attended in Málaga, Spain last year. My effort — to find and work with others focused on student mobility and academic credit mobility with a similar passion — has finally found a home.

The Groningen Declaration was seeded by DUO, the Education Executive Agency of the Netherlands Ministry of Education, Culture and Science five years ago to stir a movement among education stakeholders to address the cumbersome methods of validating student learning claims and the burden of credential delivery, verification, assessment and articulation so that student mobility efforts can be enhanced beyond the paper flows. DUO is the government funding body for students and schools, running an annual budget of close to €30 billon. DUO’s funding task makes it the national student data depository, managing enrolment data and examination results throughout the entire education system. Since November 2011, students in the Dutch education system may consult their own educational data and share these with others, around the globe. Which is why DUO came up with the idea to initiate the Groningen Declaration Network.

It was Herman de Leeuw who successfully requested DUO to support the launch of the Groningen Declaration. Herman’s vision is to develop the GDN as a global movement elevating respect and recognition of the currency of learning. His work is in support of DUO’s national agenda. Herman is the Executive Secretary to the GDN which has evolved from a small meeting of a few dozen five years ago to attracting education stakeholders from around the globe. Herman recruited many to help, including Victoriano Giralt, from the Universidad de Málaga whom I met at the third RS3G meeting back in 2009, sharing our mutual interests in shared networks supporting authentication and common web services. Michael Sessa from PESC was coordinating task forces with Rick Torres from the National Student Clearinghouse, covering the program participant needs and coordinating the task force presenting the implications of what’s next for the GDN as it transitions to a formal incorporated entity.

There were many others who helped pull together and host the GDN meeting — and I would be remiss without naming Joe Samuels, CEO of SAQA who did a wonderful job bringing us all together and demonstrating what can really happen when people from all the corners of the globe work together. Peter van der Hijden from the Netherlands was the master of ceremonies as in previous conferences — balancing the agenda across many competing dependencies. There were more than 25 presentations and participants from around the globe that drew packed rooms, summary take-aways and great conversation. The sheer volume of topics did lead to stalling some of the sessions, but the meeting still did not disappoint. The coffee breakouts reflected the high level of interest in participants to continue working through diverse challenges.

Of course, there were a number of social networking opportunities throughout the two primary days that did not require smart phones or tablets. As a pre-conference event on Tuesday, many GDN delegates took the boat trip to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for years. That was a stark contrast to the present day objective of respecting the freedom of all people regardless of their beliefs, religion or skin. The Tuesday evening opening remarks and cocktails at the Robben Island Museum including local South African music and appetizers — both very well liked by the participants. On Wednesday evening, we were bused to Groot Constantia Wine Estate, for wine tasting and dinner. Twelve more signatories officially committed to GDN ideals during a signing ceremony.

Over the course of the week, I had time to jolt up Table Mountain to eye the Atlantic ocean and landscape around Cape Town. Table Mountain is a must to experience. Plus, I took the Red Bus Tour around the Cape to see the business district, outdoor shopping mall and local sights. I got on and off the bus about six times, including once to put my feet in the sandy beach of Camp Bay.

Site-seeing aside, I felt the business reasons must be articulated to support why higher education stakeholders -– and the governance of institutions — should support the digital evolution of credentials so that more people can enjoy the benefits of what higher education brings forth.

I was a bit vocal with members from UNESCO, as my Pitbull mindset focused on trying to harvest the opportunity of leveraging the need for a global registry of educational providers. I could be apologetic, but given we are in the 21st century -– and we have seen other industries negotiate how to serve commerce, from shipping, telecom to banking -– I felt our eco-system needs more from the world organizations than a hand shake update on vision without teeth or substance. We need the world organization to lead the charge and recognize the importance of the GDN. There is much that can be done to lead. It begins with helping stimulate the necessary digital regulations to formulate how learners anywhere can recognize their learning credentials without the barriers of boundaries, policies and technologies that have been legacy of bygone eras.

This year’s meeting included presentations from initial pilots and projects underway in Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Poland, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, UK, United States and South Africa. That is not an inclusive list. But it reveals the evolving mindset shared across education stakeholders as the signatories engage in the GDN activities to develop the business and technical platforms to improve the recording, the gathering, the dissemination and archival of learning experiences and the credentials one may earn from formal and informal learning environments. The movement away from paper-based credentialing services won’t stop anytime soon — as stakeholders see the value in sharing digital records they govern -– and the validation, evaluation, assessment of comparability, applicability and value. New applications are being launched to streamline the plumbing so to speak -– and the consumption of electronic forms so that people everywhere can aspire to engage in meaningful educational opportunities that will change their lives.

Three GDN task forces reported their accomplishments during the conference:

  • Navin Vasudev from South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) and Margaret Wenger from Educational Credential Evaluators reported on the progress of the Verifications Policy and Best Practices Task Force. That Task Force quickly grew into a global community of experts that share the conviction that verification policy and best practices will pave the way for global acceptance.
  • Rick Torres from the National Student Clearinghouse did a nice job summarizing several important use cases –- and putting priority on piloting projects across the Unites States, South America and China.
  • Michael Sessa from PESC did a superb job articulating the next steps to formally organize and incorporate the GDN.
  • In closing the GDN, Neil Robinson, the Academic Registrar from the University of Melbourne, invited all participants to attend next year’s GDN late April 2017 in Australia.

I look forward to our progress and next meeting.

Certainly, the GDN’s mission has evolved beyond the first meeting. It is now on course to foster and support the portability of academic credentials guiding the conversation more broadly to support individual learning currency earned through formal and informal source anywhere in the world.