JDAZ Legal Framework

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This chapter describes the European and national legal contexts and the initiated transparency processes. After taking a short look at the European Union, national legislative power is considered in more detail, followed by the inter-governmental Bologna cooperation and agreements.

Key messages for practitioners

1. The legal power related to the implementation of international joint programmes lies at the level of national or sub-national authorities (ministries of education).

2. In addition to the national legislative framework, the institutional guidelines and regulations of the partner HEIs have to be taken into account when planning joint programme cooperation.

3. There are several important transparency tools / projects / facilitating processes:

4. The following relevant information related to joint programmes can be found through the ENIC-NARIC network:

  • information on the legal status of the partner institution;
  • the degree-awarding rights of the partner institution;
  • advice on the future recognition of the jointly awarded degree;
  • advice on modalities of joint issuing of diplomas.

EU competences in higher education

The European Union influences higher education policy through political cooperation. Since the adoption of the Lisbon Strategy in 2000, political cooperation in education has been strengthened – first by the 'Education and Training 2010' work programme, followed by the strategy for European cooperation in education and training 'ET 2020'. This cooperation has led to the formulation of common targets and initiatives, which are supported by a number of funding programmes, such as the Lifelong Learning Programme 2007-13, Erasmus Mundus 2009-13 and the Erasmus+ programme that has replaced all the existing initiatives in 2014. Funding bodies, such as the European Commission, have no legislative power within the educational sector. Funding scheme rules on admission, selection, tuition fees et cetera are subordinated to national legislation.

The European Commission provides information and a homedatabase on regulated professions within the EU internal market, as well as updates on current directives and harmonisation measures.

The European Qualifications Framework, EQF

The European Qualifications Framework is an EU initiative, which acts as a translation device to make national qualifications more readable across Europe. The EQF aims to relate national qualifications systems of different countries to a common European reference framework. The EQF applies to all types of education, training and qualifications, from school education to academic, professional and vocational. Levels of national qualifications are placed at one of the central reference levels, ranging from basic (Level 1) to advanced (Level 8).

The higher education bachelor-level cycle corresponds to the learning outcomes for EQF level 5-6. The master-level cycle corresponds to the learning outcomes for EQF level 7 and the doctoral-level cycle to EQF level 8.

The Framework for Qualifications in the EHEA comprises three cycles, generic descriptors for each cycle, based on learning outcomes and competences, and credit ranges in the first and second cycles. The first, bachelor-level, cycle ranges from 180-240 ECTS credits and the second, master-level, cycle from 90-120 ECTS credits.

ECTS credit transfer and accumulation system

Several institutions offering a joint programme have adopted the European Credit Transfer and accumulation System (ECTS). One year within the ECTS system equals 60 credits with one credit equalling 25-30 hours of work, including self-study.

The ECTS Users’ Guide has recently been revised and is in the process of being discussed in the Bologna Follow-Up Group. It is likely to be approved by the Ministerial Meeting in Yerevan in 2015.

Some care must be taken when using the ECTS grading scheme for the conversion of grades within a joint programme, as difficulties may arise. One difficulty is that the ECTS scale has a statistical basis and depends on the population of students to be considered. Unless all students are registered at all the participating consortium institutions (even at the universities they may never visit), the student population in the joint programme will be different at each partner university, and one student may end up with two conflicting final grades in two different institutions. The joint registration of all students at all the partner universities will solve this issue, but this may not be possible in all cases, e.g. when there are two universities in the same country and/or when national legislation does not allow a student to be registered in more than one country.

The EGRACONS project is also interesting. This EU-co-funded project that runs from 2012 to 2015 is developing a European Grade Conversion System. The project aims to develop a user-friendly web-based tool for grade conversion that will be made available to all European higher education institutions on a voluntary basis, enabling a transparent interpretation of students' accomplishments. The EGRACONS project aims to stay as closely as possible to the general instructions of the 2015 ECTS Users' Guide on how to prepare grading tables (based on frequency tables).

National legislative power and institutional regulations

Even though joint programmes have an international character, it is important to bear in mind that the legal power related to higher education policy and the implementation of joint programmes lies within the national or sub-national legislation and applies also to international cooperation activities. It is therefore important to first and foremost carefully check national regulations and not only European regulation. Higher education policy is developed and implemented at the national level by the relevant ministry of education or science.

Information on national higher education systems in Europe can be found through Eurydice and the ENIC-NARICs.

National Qualifications Frameworks

All countries of the European Higher Education Area had committed to developing National Qualifications Frameworks compatible with the overarching framework of the European Higher Education Area by 2010. This commitment was undertaken in 2005 but the 2012 stocktaking report indicated that this is a field where considerable work remains to be done.

The Ploteus website provides a tool for comparative views of national qualifications frameworks.

Ensuring the legal status and the degree-awarding power of the partner HEIs

Before entering into joint programme cooperation, it should be established whether the institution is authorised to award qualifications that are accepted for academic and professional purposes in the home country, or, where applicable, also in other countries potentially relevant for future programme graduates.

The European Area of Recognition Manual for higher education institutions (EAR HEI) presents guidelines on checking the status of the institution (p.25) and lists relevant information sources. If the requested information cannot be found in the available resources, HEIs should contact the competent authority in a given country, such as the ENIC-NARIC centres.

It is important to also check the institutional guidelines of all partner institutions related to degree awarding, i.e. whether a certain minimum period of enrolment or physical stay at the degree-awarding institutions is required, and whether multiple enrolment (i.e. enrolment at more than one institution) is allowed in the national and institutional context.

Ensuring the legality of the programme offered / accreditation

Accreditation of individual study programmes is required in some countries, but for example not in all European countries. There are variations in accreditation procedures, in criteria, in the cost, in the length and the nature of the decision (conditional/unconditional). In 2010 some European countries (members of the European Consortium for Accreditation in higher education - ECA) launched the Multilateral Agreement on the Mutual Recognition of Accreditation Results regarding Joint Programmes (MULTRA). This agreement should facilitate the accreditation of international joint programmes. Refer to chapter 7 for more information about this topic.

In countries where individual programme accreditation is not required, the higher education institution is responsible for continuous quality monitoring of the programme and is usually reviewed by the national quality assurance agency.

Financing and tuition fees

There are great variations within and between countries regarding higher education funding and tuition fee policies, which are guided by national legislation and institutional rules. You can find information on tuition fees and student support systems in European countries through Eurydice (see the Eurydice Report 2012 on fees and support for higher education).

Quality assurance systems

The processes for ensuring quality within the higher education system vary from one country to another. One distinction is whether the main focus of quality assurance is on institutions, on programmes, or on both. Another distinction is between internal and external quality assurance. Information on approaches within internal and external quality assurance within the 47 Bologna countries can be found in the Bologna Process Implementation Report 2012. More details on quality assurance in joint programmes are available in Chapter 7 of this guide.

ENQA Standards and Guidelines

The European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) was established in 2004 with the aim to promote European cooperation in the field of quality assurance in higher education.

The European Standards and Guidelines (ESG) were developed as part of the Bologna Process and adopted by European ministers of higher education in 2005. The ESG consist of three parts, covering:

  • internal quality assurance;
  • external quality assurance;
  • external reviews by quality assurance agencies.

A revised version of the ESG, approved by the Bologna Follow-up Group (BFUG), has been adopted at the Bologna meeting in Yerevan in May 2015.

Legal situation on awarding joint degrees and issuing joint diplomas

Issuing a single joint diploma after completion of the joint programme is legally possible in some countries, and according to institutional regulations of some higher education institutions. It is important to check national legislation on this point already during the planning phase of the joint programme cooperation, in order to ensure the legal status of the awarded degree and to ensure degree recognition for future graduates. The most reliable information on the modalities of awarding degrees and issuing diplomas can be obtained from the ministries of education or the ENIC-NARIC-centres and found in the institutional regulations of the partner institutions.

The Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA), which is responsible for implementing the Joint Master’s Degree component of the Erasmus+ programme, regularly posts updates on the situation regarding awarding joint degrees and issuing joint diplomas on its Joint degree website.

Student admission

In joint programmes, even though there is often a joint selection body/consortium, the admission decision needs to comply with national and institutional guidelines, unless exceptions exist for joint programmes. Adhering to national legal admission requirements is particularly important in order to guarantee that the awarded degrees will be recognised. As a general rule, it is recommended that the joint admission criteria meet the requirements of the strictest partner, provided they do not clash with national or institutional criteria.

Institutional guidelines

In addition to adhering to the national legislative framework, HEIs developing joint programmes should also take into consideration the institutional guidelines. Several HEIs have elaborated institutional guidelines on setting up international joint programmes. In many countries HEIs have institutional autonomy, so it is vital to consult these guidelines in relation to student admission, assessments, credits and diplomas. Ask your (potential) partners if they have guidelines and share their guidelines and your own with all (potential) consortium partners.

Inter-governmental cooperation and agreements

The Bologna Process For information on joint programmes as part of the inter-governmental Bologna Process, see section 3.2.

The joint Diploma Supplement

The European Diploma Supplement is a document attached to a higher education diploma aimed at improving transparency and facilitating recognition. It describes the nature, level, context, content and status of the studies that were successfully completed by the individual named on the original diploma to which this supplement is appended.

The tool was initiated by UNESCO and jointly revised by UNESCO, the European Commission and the Council of Europe. Graduates in all the countries taking part in the Bologna Process are entitled to automatically receive the Diploma Supplement in a 'major' European language.

The joint programme partnership is advised to issue a joint Diploma Supplement, including information on the jointness of the educational offer (see ECA’s Guidelines for Good Practice for Awarding Joint Degrees, 2014).

Recognition of degrees awarded by joint programmes

According to The Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region (The Lisbon Recognition Convention - LRC), adopted in 1997, recognition is 'a formal acknowledgement by a competent authority of the value of a foreign educational qualification with a view to access to educational and/or employment activities'.

Over 50 countries have already ratified the LRC, developed by the Council of Europe and UNESCO. In addition to European countries, it has been signed by e.g. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The LRC covers academic recognition and promotes academic mobility by facilitating the recognition of qualifications, students’ access to further studies and credit transfers between higher education institutions. The LRC stipulates that qualifications must be recognised unless substantial differences can be proved. The Committee overseeing the implementation of the LRC has, among other things, adopted a Recommendation on the Recognition of Joint Degrees in 2004.

In April 2012, the ministers of education of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) recommended the use of the European Area of Recognition Manual for higher education institutions (EAR HEI), including information on recognition of qualifications awarded by joint programmes on p.66. This chapter is further elaborated on in the Framework for Fair Recognition of Joint Degrees.

The Erasmus Mundus Cluster Workshop (2012) on recognition of joint degrees also offers a relevant overview of recognition of joint degrees.

For practical guidelines on recognition of joint degrees, see Chapter 8 of this Guide.


Key sources

Aerden, A. and J. Lokhoff. Framework for Fair Recognition of Joint Degrees, ECA, 2013.

The Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region (The Lisbon Convention).

EAR HEI Consortium, European Area of Recognition Manual for higher education institutions, 2013.

Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency, European Commission. Joint degree website.

EGRACONS project (European Grade Conversion System).

Erasmus Mundus Cluster on recognition of joint degrees.

European Consortium for Accreditation.

European Consortium for Accreditation: Guidelines for Good Practice for awarding Joint Degrees, 2014.

European Consortium for Accreditation (ECA). Multilateral Agreement on the Mutual Recognition of Accreditation Results regarding Joint Programmes (MULTRA), 2013.

European Union, The European Qualifications Framework.

The European Higher Education Area in 2012: The Bologna Process Implementation Report, 2012.

The Eurydice Network.

Summaries of EU Legislation; Education and Training.

Other sources

ENQA. Full proposal for the revised ENQA Standards and Guidelines.

European Commission, database on regulated professions.

European Communities. ECTS Users’ Guide, Brussels, 2015.