Herman de Leeuw

“Citizens worldwide should be able to consult and share their authentic educational data with whomever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want”.

This is the goal of the Groningen Declaration, an important international initiative that supports student mobility and international recognition of qualifications but is still little known in the field of quality assurance.

Anthony McClaran, CEO of the Autralian QA agency TEQSA, addressed the Groningen Declaration Network Conference held in Melbourne on 26 April 2017. His speech is available here: GroningenSpeech_Anthony McClaran.

Herman de Leeuw, Founder and Executive Director of the Groningen Declaration Network, explains the essential characteristics of the Groningen Declaration through the five Q&A below:

1. What is the Groningen Declaration? Can you explain what the aims are and why achieving these aims is important?

The Groningen Declaration (GD) started out with a declaration of intent. It sprang from the realization that digital student data sets, as stored by (national) digital student data depositories, may function as mobility boosters for students in their interactions with HEIs, employers, recognition authorities, funding authorities (and more). From 2007 onwards, EAIE’s annual  conferences were used as the first sounding board to discuss, debate and test this  fledgling idea, out of the conviction that digital student data sets should become the norm for the admissions process in higher education (and in other sectors), rather than the paper documents that are still in use today.

The immediate origins of the Groningen Declaration Network (GDN) can be traced back to the Dutch Diplomaregister, an online portal that is operational since 2012 and that is used by graduates of the Dutch education system (including non-nationals) who can access their educational attainments and share these in a secure way with other stakeholders. The Diplomaregister is hosted by DUO – the Education Executive Agency, a part of the Netherlands Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. The moment the Diplomaregister opened for consultation by graduates, the use case for the GD was there. For citizens, to be able to pick up their digital educational data and share them with others, acceptance on the receiving end is a prerequisite. And this is what the GD seeks to achieve.

Right from the start, the initiative proved to be the right idea at the right time. Without much prior personal contact, all the parties invited instantly accepted the invitation to come together and discuss the usefulness of digital student data for the purpose of global human capital cross border mobility. They were all attracted to the main ideas of the declaration, which takes up just one page of text.

First timers already included in 2012 were: AACRAO; NSC; Stanford University; the Russian Ministry of Education; CHESICC, the China Higher Education Student Information and Career Center; the Indian CDSL – developers of the Indian National Academic Database; the South African National Learners Records Database; the Norwegian FS system; and many others.

2. What is the relationship between the Groningen Declaration and the recognition of diplomas/qualifications in higher education?

Acceptance of digital student data as valid proof of educational attainment is crucial. One way to further this is to provide access to digital verification of educational attainment. As soon as credential evaluators begin processing applications by utilizing digital student data rather than paper documents, the probative value of digital data will  prevail over current prejudice that favours paper documents over digital data sets. That will introduce the “Digital Learning and Skill Currency” as the new entry ticket for admission, recognition, the awarding of study and work permits, and for hiring and employment.

In April 2014, at the third GDN annual meeting at Georgetown University in Washington, ECE was one of the first three US based evaluation services to sign the GD,  the other two being Educational Perspectives nfp and Foreign Credentials Service of America. And that number has risen since,  with new evaluation services and recognition bodies providing a steady trickle of new signatories with each successive annual meeting. Bringing in credential evaluation services brought in a pivotal sector, one upon which admissions decisions, recognition, licensure and employment often hinges.

 3. Why should those concerned with quality assurance in higher education know about the Groningen Declaration?

 When processing an application for the accreditation of a program, quality assurance agencies will routinely vet the bona fides of the teaching staff. When lecturers with fake credentials bought from diploma mills fall through during the vetting, quality assurance agencies may start to develop a  fleeting interest in ways to establish the authenticity of the credentials that document a lecturer’s  background. Digital student data sets may address such concerns. But that still does not turn digital student data or the GD into a concern for quality assurance agencies. However, the ongoing trend towards customization of programs of study  and the inexorable inroads digitisation makes in all aspects of higher education now start to bring the message home. Jan Anthonie Bruijn, member of the Senate (Upper Chamber of Parliament) in the Netherlands recently analysed the situation and came up with an  assessment that was published in the Dutch weekly digital Newsletter Science Guide. Below, I will render his main line of thought in English.

During a debate in the Dutch senate about the recently approved Act on the Protection of the Terms University and on the Awarding of  Academic Degrees, the question was raised what impact the customization of programmes of study, the digitization in higher education and its internationalization could have on the recognition and protection of diplomas and degrees. According to senator Jan Anthonie Bruijn, these  issues come most prominently to the fore in the rise of SPOCs – small private online courses. SPOCs may change the game. They may do away with quality assured programs of study, since students may start to stack individual credits in hybrid ways, by combining traditional lectures, MOOCs, and SPOCs that no longer need to derive from just one source but basically can be elected by the student himself. This could sound the end of final degree examinations; instead, students may have to apply for tests that are HEI agnostic and agnostic as to the mode of delivery. If SPOCs could  be taken to represent a generalized trend towards customized, individualized modes of delivery and certification, this may necessitate a discussion about core concepts such as institution, credentials and degrees. And it may necessitate a discussion on the role of national government authorities when it comes to accreditation and to funding (of institutions and of students). If such a future cafeteria model of customized, individualized modes of delivery and certification would become the norm, student-centered systems of study vouchers and learning rights might become the norm.

This trend would have direct implications for quality assurance. Quality assurance agencies may not disappear, but the role of the institutions may become more pronounced. Being in direct contact with the students, institutions may approve (or disapprove) of credits earned elsewhere and award degrees on the basis of credits earned through hybrid pathways. For quality assurance agencies, a shift might have to take place from program accreditation to a more modular accreditation where individual credits can be checked for accreditation status. It also means that accreditation could become ever more visible – it could become part of a badge that certifies what went into an individual credit. The GN advocates this. The acceptance of digital student data sets and micro credits is indispensable to accommodate Life Long Learning.

Quality assurance agencies might want to take an interest in what it takes to assure that stacked, hybrid credits may lead to relevant, trusted learning outcomes. The role of institutional examination bodies and awarding bodies may become more prominent in the accreditation process.

4. Can you summarise the main results of the Groningen Declaration thus far?

 The GDN succeeded in building up a network of over 1200 contacts worldwide, attracting signatures to the GD from over 70 signatories by the end of April 2017, and bringing together a number of attendees that rose from 55 in 2012 to 120 attendees this year.  It made stakeholders across widely varying sectors realize that using digital student data sets will cut down administrative expenditure, speed up processing time and thus facilitate citizens around the globe in their life long quest to realize their potential at school and  university, in the workplace, and in their dealings with a wide variety of administrative bodies around the globe.

The GDN vision and  mission have made it to the agenda of influential organizations around the world. These include individual universities, large university consortia,  large student data depositories such as CHESICC, the NSC, India’s nascent C-NAD, SAQA’s NLRD, DUO’s Diplomaregister, Norway’s Vitnemålsportalen etc. It also includes major influential international bodies such as UNESCO, the World Bank, the OECD, the European Commission and more.

As a government initiated start-up that has been incubated for over 5 years within DUO, the GDN also succeeded in making the transition from basically a virtual network to a legal entity: Starting 20 December 2016, the GDN has become a foundation under Dutch law. The GDN is registered with the Netherlands Chamber of Commerce as the “stichting Groningen Declaration Network”, and seeks funding by raising sponsorship money, introducing conference registration fees and  voluntary annual contributions, and by underwriting to calls for funded projects.

5. What do you envisage as the next steps regarding the Groningen Declaration?

 Given the active representation and involvement of a huge number of major national and international players in the GDN network, the GDN might evolve from essentially having been a  congregator and disseminator of innovation to become a representative body that speaks on behalf of the Digital Student Data Ecosystem, ensuring that the goal to provide globally mobile citizens with their digital skills and learning currency to share with whomever, whenever, wherever transforms from a vision into main stream practice.


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