NOKUT voyage from Norway for fact-finding visit to UK

UK NARIC hosts many visitors from around the UK and from around the world in its offices in Cheltenham. But last week we wished that our new training room, recently enlarged in our office refurb, had been made even bigger as we welcomed an unusually large delegation of 18 from our counterpart national recognition agency in Norway, NOKUT.

The photo shows some of the delegation enjoying the floral gardens and period buildings of Regency Cheltenham! Some of the NOKUT fact-finding delegation from Norway in the floral gardens of Cheltenham

NOKUT is conducting a major fact-finding review to inform the next stages in its development. NOKUT’s remit is not only qualification recognition; it also performs the lead quality assurance role for vocational education and for higher education in Norway.

This accounts for the size of the delegation – there were representatives from the different departments and functions of the organisation, and also Board members. The NOKUT Board includes representatives from the education sector and student union representation as well, so all in all the approach is notably collaborative and multi-stakeholder.

The day after meeting us in Cheltenham, the NOKUT delegation travelled to nearby Gloucester to hold conversations with the UK quality assurance agency, the QAA, with a focus on that aspect of NOKUT’s work.

The exchange of ideas was extremely interesting. There are some similarities between NOKUT and UK NARIC – they are both independent, but officially authorised, agencies – but at the same time there are differences of approach. Of course, in our recognition work, the focus is the same, and there was much discussion in this area.

Our meeting in Cheltenham was very fruitful indeed and we look forward to interesting collaborations and joint projects with our Norwegian colleagues at NOKUT!

Reflections: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Mostar (2)In September UK NARIC visited Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to deliver a capacity building workshop for the ENICs in the region of the Former Yugoslavia.

Our workshop was hosted by the Centre for Information and Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education (the CIP). The representatives of Croatian and Serbian Centres also attended the event.  This was the last of the series of four capacity building workshops prepared and delivered jointly by UK and Croatian NARICs with support from the European Commission. Over the last two years the centres met in the UK, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina with the aim of sharing good practices and promoting fair recognition in the region of Former Yugoslavia.

With a population of only around four million people, Bosnia and Herzegovina is highly ethnically diverse, being home to Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats. This diversity accounts for the rich culture with a unique mix of Eastern and Western influences. Crossing the historical Old Bridge of Mostar over the fast-flowing Neretva river is almost like opening the gates from the West to the East with mosques dominating the right bank and churches abundant on the left bank.

Unfortunately, the civil war that broke out in BiH in the early 90s showed that diversity may also lead to destruction. Mostar suffered greatly during the war with many of its historical buildings and bridges destroyed by bombings. Luckily, several large-scale restoration projects have managed to return its pre-war beauty and charm to the historical centre of Mostar, which has recently entered the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

In turn, the locals quickly revived the century-old tradition of diving into the Neretva River from the newly-restored Old Bridge. The competition takes place in the summer so unfortunately we did not get to  witness the event. Watching divers jump into ice-cold waters of Neretva from the 25-meter bridge must be quite an experience, no surprise the competition gathers thousands of viewers!

While the narrow cobble-stoned streets in the Old Bridge area are happily bustling with tourists, venturing a bit further out from the city centre is a slightly sombre experience. We were deeply moved by the cemeteries of war victims and the numerous deserted buildings still covered in marks from bomb shells.

In addition to its rich culture, Bosnia and Herzegovina also guarantees fantastic weather with very warm summers and mild winters. We visited the country in early autumn – apparently one of the best times to visit, as the summer heat might be a bit too much! This time of the year is also perfect for sampling delicious local fruit and vegetables. The supermarkets in BiH definitely do not need an “organic” shelf, as local organic produce can be bought in many street markets scattered all around town. Meat- and cheese-lovers would also not be disappointed…

Locals are also known for their love of coffee – apparently BiH citizens drink the most coffee per capita of all the former Yugoslav republics. But don’t expect a large mug of Americano, instead ask for a traditional coffee. It is very similar to Turkish coffee and might even be served with a bite of the local version of Turkish delight.

Mostar lies in a valley surrounded by magnificent mountains. Unfortunately the tight schedule did not allow us to venture outside the city and explore the beautiful countryside. But we certainly left the country with the hope to return and to continue our work in this region.

Tatsiana Zahorskaya, October 2013

Reflections: Azerbaijan

bakuA few weeks ago, we participated in the second workshop of a joint project between the countries of the Caucasus region. This time it was held in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku with the participation of the Georgian side.

During our two-day meeting, we got acquainted with the work of the centre, our Azerbaijani colleagues presented to us their recently launched website for online registration of applications and spoke about the current situation in the country’s higher education sector. In our opinion, the meeting was very friendly and productive. Colleagues from three countries (Azerbaijan, Georgia and the United Kingdom) had a chance to share their experiences, to ask questions, and to establish closer contacts for successful cooperation in the future. The meeting was conducted in Russian rather than English.

It should be noted that the main aim of this project is “to increase transparency and consistency in recognition practices across ENIC/NARIC network”. During this project, which is financed by European Commission together with UK NARIC, our intention is to promote better understanding of the structure of qualifications in the various countries of the world, to improve online data handling and storage systems, and to place more focus on learning outcomes while evaluating documents. Another important aspect is the development of cooperation between centres in general.

The process of recognition of foreign educational documents started in Azerbaijan in 2004, when the country began the process of integration with the European education system. Azerbaijan joined the Bologna process in 2005. Up until now, the main focus of the centre is still given to higher education. However, our colleagues have a strong desire to apply to the government for permission to deal with secondary and vocational education documents. As the centre is a structural unit of the Ministry of Education of Azerbaijan and its decisions are legally binding, it somewhat limits the ability and desire of employees to further develop their centre.

The majority of applications to the centre are from Azerbaijanis citizens, who received an education internationally. On their return to Azerbaijan everyone must go through the procedure of recognition in order to be eligible to get a job. Among the countries where students from Azerbaijan are studying the first place is taken by Russia, while the UK is in sixth place. Students are taught in 55 countries. The government also funds the training of its citizens abroad, with the sole condition that after training the graduate should sign employment contract with the state at least for three years. Fields of study are determined by the need of the market. The main ones are tourism (the most popular place for training in this area – Switzerland); humanities and management – the UK; medicine and technical professions – Germany; technology – Japan and Malaysia.
Azerbaijan is the largest country in the Transcaucasian region and is considered to be the first democratic republic in the Muslim world. After gaining independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country has endured a difficult period through the ethnic conflicts that affected the migration of various peoples.

It is interesting that in the country there are 9 out of 11 climate zones. Unfortunately we were not able to visit these other areas, spending all the time in Baku.

Baku is being actively developed and built. Certainly, the presence of natural resources (oil and gas) in the region contributes to the dynamic development of the city. Baku also hosted Eurovision song contest last year. For this purpose a new concert hall was built. On the road between the airport and the city you can see the huge construction site – this is preparation for the upcoming first European Olympic Games in 2015. In the city many of the old houses are being demolished, others are being renovated; many modern complexes are being built. The National Flag Place flagpole is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the tallest in the world. The most prominent building is a newly built three flame-shaped towers, a symbol of modern Baku. They were built by specially invited Japanese architects, as Baku is in a seismic zone. During night time illuminated towers simulate one hundred and ninety meter flames and gigantic national flag.

We came just before the national holiday Nowruz (Persian New Year), which is celebrated on the 21st of March. During this period, the population creates bonfires on the streets of the capital and kids and teenagers jump over fire. Also traditionally a lot of pastry and bakery is prepared. It is pleasant to see that the younger generation is being brought up following traditions and the spirit of the nation. In the old town a celebration was organised with folk music, singing and dancing in national dress. Two traditional characters entertained the audience and children. There were many school kids, and when one of the clowns invited a boy to dance, the latter without preparation but with great agility, began joining in the folk dance.

As always in this region you are struck by driving style. Each time you cross a road, you cannot be sure whether you will get to the opposite side in good health. Cars are driven in such way, so that it seems one big accident is about to happen in the whole city at once. Although it has to be said that during our whole stay we did not see one accident. Particularly impatient drivers just use the opposite lane.

An interesting point is that in 2011 the Ministry of Transport of Azerbaijan signed a contract with Manganese Bronze Holdings PLC for a total amount of $ 27 million. As a result, Baku taxi station was upgraded by London Taxi TX4 cars of purple colour. Availability of taxi meters takes away traditional bargaining and reduces disputes between passenger and driver. It was very unusual to see London cabs as far as 3,000 miles away from England.

It is amazing to see a large number of posters around city showing the current president and his father, who ran the country for ten years until 2003. Often on the streets you can also see the sayings of both leaders.

In the old city there are many souvenir shops, selling national products from daggers and scarves to dowry chests and handmade carpets of amazing quality.

It will be interesting to see what will become of Baku and the country in the next few years. Will the capital benefit further from the export of natural resources? Will the difficult relationship with neighbours be resolved, and what will be the future of ordinary citizens of Azerbaijan? And how will international higher education providers use the opportunities that the country has to offer?

Arseny Kruglov, March 2013

Reflections: Armenia

The following blog provides a summary of our recent project meeting in Armenia and some reflections on an emerging country, by our regional specialist Arseny Kruglov.

We have recently completed a country visit to Armenia. The main purpose of our trip was to hold a workshop with our colleagues from ArmENIC within the framework of a joint Capacity Building project. The Centre is the main national point of contact for recognition of foreign qualifications and carries out a number of other functions including the promotion of the Bologna process in Armenia, dissemination of the Diploma Supplement, involvement in the development of the NQF and the NQF-EQF referencing. This meeting helped us to better understand the principles of the organisation, and issues that occur in their daily work. In addition, we gathered first-hand information about the system of education in the country and the direction of development of the sector. All the information gathered will be used for the next update of the International Comparisons database and in our day-to-day work.

In 2011, there were approximately 2000 foreign students in Armenia. The statistics show that the number of enquires completed by ArmENIC in 2011 has doubled since 2007. The most significant growth took place in the first few years of operation (2005-2008) and the number of enquiries has since remained stable. Interestingly, most of the enquiries in ArmENIC are related to Iranian documents. The reason is quite simple: having completed an education in Armenia and received an Armenian qualification, it is easier to get to Europe and America than with an Iranian one. The main reasons for this are more open policies towards Armenia and its participation in the Bologna process. The rest of applicants arrive after completing their education in Russia (13%), Georgia (7%), and because of the recent events in Syria and Lebanon, many ethnic Armenians are considering returning.

To provide some background, Armenia is one of the oldest countries in the world, once covering a wide geographical area, but for many centuries essentially lost its influence in the region. To typify this, the world-famous Mount Ararat (still piously revered by Armenians) now sits in modern-day Turkey.

Armenia was the first country to officially adopt Christianity in 301 AD as the state religion. That is why a lot of preserved monasteries, whose construction dates back to the period from the 6th to the 15th century, are located across the country.

It must be noted that all four ArmENIC employees, with inherent Armenian hospitality, gave us a very warm welcome in their cozy office.

Generally, Armenia is a very hospitable country with lots of attractions and its national colour; the best proof of this – quite a large number of tourists from all over the world. We had the opportunity to go on a one-day bus tour to the south of the country. In a group of 15 people there were Russians, ethnic Armenians (who came to visit their homeland from the U.S. and Australia), Italians and Poles. On the plane on the way back there were tourists groups from Belgium, Germany and France.

Armenia is a country of contrasts. The capital, Yerevan (one of the oldest cities in the world, 29 years older than Rome) already has shades and colours of the East. The central square, where all the government buildings are located, and a recently created pedestrian street with newly built apartment blocks in which no one lives, contrast with housing showing significant structural damage in which most people live.

The driving style is very different from that in the UK. There are plenty of vehicles on the streets (of various ages, sometimes you wonder how some of them are still functioning) and everyone constantly uses their horn for no apparent need, to the extent that all the sounds merge into a constant hum. However, after a couple of days you get used to it.

Minibuses are very popular amongst commuters. Buses are so overcrowded that sometimes it is difficult to get off them. Armenians themselves laugh about it: “These buses are like the mafia – it is difficult to get in, and even harder to get out.”

It is impossible to describe everything. Definitely it is necessary to visit a market, where you need to bargain, and where you can buy everything that grows in the country from aubergines (which lie on the ground just like the grass) to the apricots (the national symbol of Armenia). Talking of food, it is worth mentioning that the Caucasian cuisine is very diverse and delicious. In Armenia there are many national dishes, vegetables and herbs, fine wines and the famous cognac (the only beverage in the world, which has the right from French to be called as cognac, not brandy, due to its quality).

But the economic state of the country is a little disheartening; beautiful nature, a variety of landscapes and monuments contrast with poor housing, bad quality roads, abandoned factories, empty railway stations. Being in a blockade (for political reasons), the country survives; but the question is how? Where is the income from tourism business? Knowing Armenian patriotism and the size of Armenian diaspora across the world, we can assume that substantial financial assistance is being received, but what happens to it?

However, in spite of all the difficulties, the country is developing, moving forward. A good example is the fact that Armenia is currently hosting a Bologna secretariat, which gives the country’s education sector not only an additional burden, but also the potential benefits in the future.

Looking also at UK NARIC statistics, we can see that the amount of database views and member enquiries for Armenia have risen since last year. ArmENIC has a strong desire to promote their country through representation at international conferences, seminars and workshops; to play a greater role in supporting internationalisation of Armenian universities by enhancing mobility and attending international fairs. The visit to ArmENIC strengthened the cooperation between our centres and enabled the partners to identify several areas for further collaboration in order to support the growing potential of the Centre and position it more firmly as an important player in the Armenian national education system.

Arseny Kruglov, November 2012