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
- 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.