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Herman de Leeuw, Groningen Declaration Network

The Groningen Declaration Network is a global group of stakeholders – from the public sector and commercial organisations – committed to achieving secure, portable, digital ownership of academic credentials for students. Herman de Leeuw, one of the main architects, spoke to The PIE ahead of the 2016 annual meeting next week.

The PIE: Tell me more about the Groningen Declaration Network, and how you have been getting a cohesive body together…

"I am an ordinary civil servant, not a director, nor a manager… but I have had the liberty to develop this idea which to me, to a certain extent, is a philanthropic initiative"

HDL: We’re working to introduce a sort of “global monetary model” to international student mobility, which has the side effect of combating fraud. Why is it that we deal with money, banking online and we don’t do that with skills records? Because the underlying infrastructure could more or less be the same.

As simple as the idea seems, nobody to our knowledge has dealt with it so far. We are trying to do that now, and it involves not just technical issues but also diplomatic, political issues. We’re developing slowly and deliberately by involving major stakeholders that can actually make this happen.

The PIE: When did this idea take seed?

HDL: As a network, we started in 2012; actually, I had worked on this idea since 2007, within EAIE, but it took me a long time to accurately articulate what I really wanted to do – to clarify the vision. At this point, our mid-term plan involves reaching out to the most capable stakeholders globally, and certainly so in Europe.

The PIE: So please spell out the aims of the Groningen Declaration?

HDL: First and foremost, you need to have the architectural blueprint: who can verify student records, who has the data and infrastructure to share these records? These are the bodies that you actually find already in the Groningen Declaration network: DUO for The Netherlands, the National Student Clearinghouse in the USA, CHESICC in China and so on.

“When the programme launches, the first bunch of, say, 300,000 Chinese students may then enroll directly with the US institutions of their choice”

The PIE: Do you think it’s surprising then that there has been pretty much zero action up until now, in terms of an evolution towards this sort of portability and security in higher ed?

HDL: Yes, that is amazing, but we’ve had very encouraging success in the few years of our existence. The National Student Clearinghouse has been working for three years now with China to make it possible that Chinese students, maybe this year or next year, will be able to access their own secure student data. In that scheme, the NSC will act as a conduit – it’s a highway to facilitate the traffic of the student data to the institution that they want to enroll with.

Over the last years, the NSC and CHESICC tested a lot of things, especially the secure exchange of international student data. This was done to be absolutely sure that institutions know which student it is dealing with from China. Essentially, when the programme launches, the first bunch of, say, 300,000 Chinese students may then enroll directly with the US institutions of their choice. (For the time being, this will be one-way traffic: students going from China to the US.)

The PIE: So you’ve got the buy-in of the Chinese Ministry as well?

HDL: CHESICC is the China Higher Education Student Information and Career Centre; it’s not Ministry itself, it is an executive agency under the Ministry. I first got to know them in 2011 in the run up to the EAIE conference in Copenhagen, where I had organised a session on digital student data portability.

When asked whether CHESICC could sign the Groningen Declaration, they told us, ‘We are excited about this idea, but we have to tell you up front: we are not the Ministry. We agree with you that your vison is technically speaking totally possible, but it will take us a few years before we have the green light from the Ministry.’

They then hosted the next year’s meeting in Beijing, and although they did not sign in 2013, it is exactly what happened in Washington in 2014. It was fairly pleasing to see that it worked out.

The PIE: You must be delighted, is this what you were dreaming of when you first came up with the idea: global buy-in and commitment?

HDL: Well, you have to realise that I am an ordinary civil servant, not a director, nor a manager… but I have had the liberty to develop this idea which to me, to a certain extent is a philanthropic initiative. I think this is something that the world will benefit from. My gratification is to see the idea catching on.

The PIE: And how did the idea come to you?

HDL: In 2005, I was trained at the National Police Academy of the Netherlands as a forensic document researcher. I worked on national passports, EU dollar banknotes and other secure documents in order to be able to tell them apart from fake documents. Authenticity issues and document control were part of my job with DUO, the Education Executive Agency of the Netherlands.

“Suddenly it struck me, why is it that we care for paper documents while the source is really the data sets at the university or at the funding agency”

At DUO, all student and educational data has been digitally processed from the 1980s. Suddenly it struck me, why is it that we care for paper documents while the source is really the data sets at the university or at the funding agency. A document is simply a print out of data that is born digitally anyway.

The PIE: Are you saying, the digital security in a home country was never an issue, that wasn’t a challenge. The challenge was making each body talk to each other?

HDL: Yes.

The PIE: Right, because I actually assumed there might be a problem with getting the digital and security infrastructure in place.

HDL: People working in a given sector tend to focus too much on their own sector. This holds true for the education sector like it does in any other sector, whereas the solution for these issues, these concerns may already have been solved elsewhere. For student data portability, the banking sector might hold the answer. Just ask yourself, did you ever encounter fake withdrawals from your bank account?

“These same privacy rules can actually be the driving force to make this movement happen”

I mean, we all know there are people out there who try to skim your bank cards, send you phishing emails, but by and large, I would say most people never really experience problems with digital banking. You can use this same technology for education. It’s not a question of whether it can be done, it is just a question of how much money you want to invest in secure technology.

The other issue, that may be the more important one, is privacy. We at DUO and most other bodies that participate in the Groningen Declaration are (semi) government bodies or not for profit organisations: we are all governed by strict privacy rules. But these same privacy rules can actually be the driving force to make this movement happen. In our approach, the bona-fide student himself is at the helm: It is they that authorises the release of their own data. We will not do that for you; we will just put the infrastructure at your disposal, but you as a student can actually decide who may see your data.

The PIE: This is an agenda that you have been championing, do you think that says something about the Netherlands?

HDL: The formula that enables us to pull off the Groningen Declaration vision consists of a number of considerations. First, since the GDN originated in the Netherlands and is based there: The Netherlands is conceived of as an unobtrusive country, we are relatively small, we are open to the world, we have good relations with many countries all over the world. Unlike what could be the case when the Russian Federation, the US, China, the UK or other bigger nations would be running in front of the troops, we have the benefit of people saying we don’t mind your doing that.

The other thing is, we are a government body, so people may think: If we throw in our lot with this network, we are not selling our souls to vendors.

“We will just put the infrastructure at your disposal, but you as a student can actually decide who may see your data”

The PIE: I guess there is a commercial aspect to it, some of the companies like Digitary [a signatory], they will be making money…

HDL: That is understood. There have to be vendors of course. I get an increasing amount of requests from vendors all over the world asking to be admitted and to become a signatory right away, or to take a seat on our executive committee. But I always screen them on what they offer.

Quite a few vendors around the world basically operate a silo: They say, ‘we do exactly what you promote and it is wonderful…’, but then it turns out they are actually selling a proprietary system. Meaning: your data can enter but cannot exit, you cannot easily share your data with others without imposing that same proprietary system on the recipient. Which runs against the grain of what we try to promote.

The PIE: It seems such a great and simple idea with a huge groundswell of popular support, which is really exciting I think.

HDL: Well you know, the one thing that keeps on surprising me is that I can call on big organisations like UNESCO, the World Bank, the European Commission, OECD, and when I ask them to provide an opening keynote, they accept and send someone, at the level of a director, deputy director-general or higher up. It is very gratifying to see that the idea is that compelling.

• You can read more about efforts to tackle fraud in international education in The PIE Review online.

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