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Talking Trade blog

The critical role of qualifications in supporting student and worker movements


Published 15 October 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has restricted the mobility of people and labour, bringing the issues of movement of people more sharply into focus.

Obstacles to student and worker mobility, however, are not new.  One longstanding barrier has been the lack of recognition of academic and professional qualifications between trading partners. The recognition of qualifications has been particularly challenging for better managing flows of people and services in regions like ASEAN where there are considerable differences in population, size of the economies and regulatory approaches. 

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mobility of students and workers has been severely restricted. In turn, trade—and especially trade in services—has dramatically slowed or has halted altogether. As a result, there is increasing pressure on the public sector to protect local economics and jobs, accelerating potential conflicts between domestic demands and broader economic interests such as international trade. In fact, government officials are now becoming emboldened to block individual mobility and subsequent trade, not just immediately, but also into the foreseeable future.

In this context, the mobility of students and workers has been further derailed. Indeed, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, this mobility was already truncated and subject to numerous barriers. One of the most significant barriers to mobility has been a plethora of academic and professional qualifications and, particularly, the lack of recognition between them.

Accordingly, workers and students are often unable to use their domestic qualifications to study or work in other countries. This is a key obstacle to trade in services and investment, which often require people movements to deliver services and ensure the smooth operation of investments.

The movement of people and labour matters because it contributes to a more efficient and productive use of human resources and catalyses better transfer of knowledge; this is crucial to boost productivity. When employers can choose from a broader talent pool, they can make better matches and make the best possible use of a scarce resource. Academic and professional qualifications are especially important in this process in certifying a candidate’s training and capability to practice in particular sectors. A lack of recognition or universality among qualifications has left the certification processes unnecessarily cumbersome and expensive, ultimately serving as a disincentive to trade in services.

Improved labour mobility and the free flow of services remains an integral part of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) project and ASEAN’s engagement with external dialogue partners. In fact, a growing desire within the region to take a more proactive role to facilitate and foster labour mobility—especially in attracting, retaining, and circulating ASEAN’s skilled workforce—has led to its prioritisation in the promotion of services trade and the movement of natural persons under agreements like the AEC and the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA).

However, in a region as large and diverse as ASEAN, differences in population, infrastructure, the size of the economies and regulatory approaches have made it difficult to promote freer flows of people, goods, services and capital. Widely different approaches to academic and technical qualifications between ASEAN member states and ongoing concerns about the unfettered movement of labour have made the recognition of qualifications across borders a challenge.

It is therefore necessary to have some common standards and qualifications in order for governments to adequately assess the opportunities and risks that can come with the movement of any specific individual. But this is easier said than done.

In regions like ASEAN, governments have adopted different approaches to the management and recognition of qualifications and qualification bodies. Some ASEAN member states have established comprehensive National Qualifications Frameworks (NQF) the provide a comprehensive overview of the structures and activities that led to the award of qualifications and recognition of learning outcomes, while others have yet to develop national qualification system at all. This makes it challenging to understand, compare and evaluate qualifications between countries.

The inability to reference, compare and recognize different qualification systems will become more complex in a post-COVID environment, with the proliferation of academic and professional online learning. While online education opens the door to thousands of professional and academic certifications across the world, it also complicates the process of certifying and recognising multiple qualifications.

Despite those challenges, over the past two decades, economies have embarked on economic cooperation programs to establish mutual recognition of qualifications across borders. For instance, under the AANZFTA Economic Cooperation Support Programme (AECSP) ASEAN members have established a region-wide qualifications framework that allows for the comparison of different qualifications frameworks, and therefore, facilitate the recognition of qualifications between countries.

Under the program, ASEAN members have established the first regional qualifications reference framework in Asia, the ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework (AQRF), and strengthened their capacity to develop and recognize each other’s national qualifications systems. When fully implemented, the AQRF will create greater confidence in education standards and support the supply of services through the temporary movement of natural persons, students and education providers within and between regional economies.

Despite significant progress in building the capabilities within ASEAN seeking to develop national qualifications systems and establishing a common qualification referencing process in the region, most academic and professional qualifications are still not widely recognized across the region. 

As COVID-19 and increased economic and regulatory uncertainty continue to limit the professional opportunities of people with valid academic and technical qualifications, improved student and worker mobility could become fundamental pillars of regional economic integration and prosperity.

In the midst of domestic pressures to block worker mobility and trade, initiatives like the AQRF need to continue to be strengthened and institutionalized. As regional economies continue to be subject to macroeconomic pressures, strengthening, retaining and circulating a skilled workforce will be a key pillar of a more connected, dynamic and resilient region.

This Talking Trade Blog was based on an ATC project, supported by the AANZFTA Support Unit (ASU) of the ASEAN Secretariat , that resulted in two Case Studies assessing the importance and key outcomes AANZFTA economic cooperation programs.

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Sebastian is an international trade and development adviser with extensive hand-on experience working across business, government and academia in the design and implementation of trade strategies and policies.

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