Transnational education and the global value of UK higher education

The UK's world-leading transnational education offer is based on quality. Douglas Blackstock hopes that intra-UK divergence won't put this reputation at risk.

Douglas Blackstock is the Chief Executive of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)

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In recent weeks I have turned a substantial proportion of my time to engagement with my counterparts and institutions across the world – doing so on behalf of the 260 plus universities, colleges and other providers across the UK who make up the membership of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA).

The purpose of this has been simple – the UK is the largest provider of trans-national education (TNE) in the world and the second largest recruiter of international students. In total, the UK has over one million students from other countries studying at our institutions, and their governments and regulators want to know that their students are getting a quality educational experience during, and after the Covid-19 pandemic.

What is quality?

They are seeking reassurance from an internationally respected organisation in QAA, whose work has influenced and shaped global developments in higher education quality assurance for almost 20 years. Examine the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance (ESG), and the more recent multilateral agreements in the ASEAN region and in Africa, and you will see how close these are to the work of QAA.

At the recent (virtual) Rome Ministerial conference, Ministers Michelle Donelan MP (representing the UK) and Richard Lochhead MSP (representing Scotland) made impressive speeches, reinforcing commitments to cooperation and multilateralism and the European Higher Education Area. The Ministerial communiqué arising from the conference reaffirmed commitments to innovation, to the ESG, and to flexibility in quality assurance – among other things.

Of course the UK has not stood still and we are evolving approaches to quality in a diverse manner in the four nations of the UK: with a new regulatory approach in England built on principles and targeting attention to where there is seen to be greatest risk; and Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales embracing approaches which are firmly rooted in quality enhancement, pushing institutions on to operate above thresholds or baselines.

Cracking the Code

Oversight of quality arrangements or regulation in our four nations sits with the Office for Students in England, Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland, The Scottish Funding Council and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales. Each funder or regulator receives advice from QAA through our independent assessments and evaluations of institutions. At the core of QAA’s work is the application of the UK Quality Code, which contains the frameworks for a coherent UK higher education system – regardless of how it is regulated or assessed.

Those of us who work internationally on behalf of UK higher education, whether it be with universities, representative bodies, government departments, or indeed at QAA, know that there is huge strength in the UK brand of higher education. As an illustration, I often recall a statement made by an international guest at QAA’s annual conference in 2015 who said: “go 12 miles off your shores and no one (in higher education terms) knows anything about four nations, they just see UK.” The British Council, our trade representatives and our local embassies are invaluable allies as we promote the UK brand.

So, in my presentations and discussions across dozens of countries – with governments, regulators and quality agencies across the Asia Pacific Region, in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, the explanation of diversity of approach within a shared commitment to the UK Quality Code hits the spot.

High priorities

As well as cross border events, my team and I have heavily engaged in conversations with key bodies in high priority countries. Taking China as one example, my recent meetings have included: the China Service Centre for Scholarly Exchange, who use QAA reports to assess whether they should approve UK courses; the China Education Association for International Exchange who scrutinise applications for TNE provision and have contributed to our most recent country report; meeting the new Minister Counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in the UK including discussing future approaches to online and blended learning; and the keynote speech at the UK- China Joint Universities Alliance to explain UK regulation and quality to Chinese Universities.

The export success of UK higher education is critically dependent on explicit and visible confirmation of rigorous internal quality assurance, external quality evaluation and careful regulation. But at home, the very existence of the UK as an entity seems rather precarious. At this time, I am reminded of a presentation I gave to the QAA Board during the passage of the Higher Education Research Association (HERA) 2017. I relayed a description of the UK, allegedly attributable to a current Minister in the UK government. It goes like this:

Being in the UK is like going to bed with an elephant. Every now and again, the elephant needs to roll over in its sleep. It doesn’t mean any harm; it just needs to move.

The problem with the above analogy of course is it assumes that all will be okay if every now and again the elephant is given a friendly nudge. It isn’t sensitive to the idea that levels of exasperation may lead to one or more partners leaving the bed.

At QAA we work collaboratively, tailoring approaches to enhancement and review in ways that suit the needs of the four nations, with each having a voice in our governance, processes and practice. In our work to maintain and project the shared values of UK higher education, every single day we understand and celebrate the richness in the diversity of our institutions and nations. We look forward to continuing this inclusive partnership approach in the interests of the academic and wider communities – including students, and graduates.

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