Explanation of substantial differences

The concept of substantial differences is one of the key features of the Lisbon Recognition Convention and is described as follows: “Foreign qualifications shall be recognised unless there is a substantial difference between the foreign qualification for which recognition is sought and the corresponding qualification of the host country”. By focusing on the five key elements that together make up a qualification (level, workload, quality, profile and learning outcomes) and by taking substantial differences into account, competent recognition authorities have transformed their approach from expecting foreign qualifications to be almost exactly the same as those offered in their own countries, to focusing on “Recognition” by accepting nonsubstantial differences.

Definition of substantial differences

Substantial differences are differences between the foreign qualification and the national qualification that are so significant, that they would most likely prevent the applicant from succeeding in the desired activity such as further study, research activities or employment.

The burden of proof of a substantial difference lies with the competent recognition authority of the host country and the accompanying guidelines are as follows:

  • not every difference should be considered to be “substantial”;
  • the existence of a substantial difference entails no obligation to deny recognition to the foreign qualification;
  • the difference should be substantial in relation to the function of the qualification and the purpose for which recognition is sought.

Interpretation of substantial differences

Differences in attitudes to recognition and to the interpretation of substantial differences persist. The ENIC and NARIC Networks promote flexible attitudes and to move away from rigid and legalistic interpretations.

The interpretation of substantial differences is very much linked to the overall outcome of a qualification, programme and/or programme components, since this determines whether the applicant has been prepared sufficiently for the desired activity. A difference that is only related to input criteria (such as workload and structure of the programme) is not likely to have a direct effect on the abilities of the applicant, and should therefore not be considered automatically as a substantial difference.

The recommendations given in this chapter, combined with the necessary flexibility and willingness on the part of competent recognition authorities to provide fair recognition, should lead to more convergence in this very important aspect of the Lisbon Recognition Convention.