How should we judge the quality of transnational provision?

There’s transnational education (TNE) going on everywhere. One hundred and thirty nine universities are cumulatively teaching in 225 locations around the world. Nearly seven hundred thousand students are studying at UK providers, for UK awards, outside of the UK.

But how do we know if it is any good?

Well, if by “we” I mean the prospective students, the reputation of UK higher education as a high quality sector is all the assurance needed. But to be truly confident we’d really want to know that such provision is properly quality assured – and in both cases this is where the work of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) comes in.

Today’s consultation on the future of TNE quality assurance is co-owned by Universities UK International and Guild HE – the two major sector representative bodies – and very much represents an early chance to define the principles that underpin any future system.

Branching out

There’s currently four rapidly diverging approaches to higher education quality assurance – one for each of the nations of the UK. These, in general, take a whole institutional approach. They look at central processes and plans – a provider’s own approach to monitoring quality – and comes to a judgement as to whether they are actually working.

One argument commonly made is that this “whole institution” approach is – if it is satisfactory to cover faculties of fine art and mechanical engineering and provision franchised to an FE college down the road – is surely also fit to endorse the quality of teaching that may happen in another country or online. There may be other bits of assurance we want to add to that in particular contexts, but fundamentally the current system is fit for purpose.

The other option up for consultation proposes in country reviews as an addition to the whole institution process. The thinking here is that different countries and settings present their own quality assurance issues – be they cultural, legal, environmental, or whatever else – and looking at UK provision in, say, China as a whole makes more sense.

This wouldn’t be another full review of your branch campuses – methods would be simplified. And it would offer opportunities, in the manner of peer review opportunities and targeted enhancement approaches, that would have a benefit to the student experience significantly greater than the adhesion of an “approved” label.

And, why is this a UK wide approach – as with other components of the quality assurance process, it is possible that this consultation, which will capture an overall sector view on the principles underpinning TNE QA, is being run in this way to put pressure on UK regulators to work together.

But what’s the cost?

Option two could bring more benefits – but option one means less inspections and less money. The choice is the one that we keep coming back to with quality assurance – if you spend more do you get more quality? And is the amount of additional quality you get worth the extra spend?

It turns out that the cost is very low – in the region of £2,000-£5,000 per provider per year if mass buy-in is achieved. This doesn’t buy you an annual visit to every branch campus, of course – about once every five years is more likely – but it does allow the whole process to go ahead as a voluntary QAA service (you only sign up if you actually have TNE).

There’s a clear reputational risk to low quality UK badged TNE that could also affect international recruitment. Is this the kind of thing that the QAA should just be getting on with sorting out as a core function? – arguably yes. But the splitting up of QAA activity between statutory and non-statutory functions, and across diverging regions means that we need to get a bit sharper about who is paying for what.

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