The chancellor’s axe didn’t fall as heavily on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) as had been feared. Nevertheless, it’s clearer than ever today that UK growth will rely on significant increases in productivity. Our capacity to export higher education will be a key part of this. In his very first speech as minister for universities and science, Jo Johnson committed publicly to increasing education exports from £18 billion in 2012 to £30 billion by 2020.
The importance of this target cannot be underestimated, and neither should the massive opportunity it offers UK universities and colleges. If the underlying structures supporting the expansion of transnational education are solid, the possibilities are substantial.
Those structures can be illustrated by looking at China, the second largest host country of UK transnational education (TNE). UK TNE in China has grown by 50 per cent in the past five years.
China’s confidence in the UK higher education delivered in China is due in no small part to the reliance the Chinese can place on the quality assurance of that provision. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has strategic partnerships with two key Chinese agencies to ensure that our arrangements for quality-assuring TNE meet their expectations without them routinely having to review it separately. We are working on joint or coordinated approaches with them, including the sharing of reviewers. We also support the work of China’s Ministry of Education in verifying new Chinese-UK programmes, and we advise UK providers on their applications to the ministry for those programmes.
If quality assurance is important for established markets such as China, it is critical for developing markets, where much of the £30 billion will need to come from. These countries are likely to rely less on bilateral agreements and more on the UK’s participation in wider European and global alliances.
The Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (known as ESG) have recently been updated and endorsed by the UK government at a conference in Yerevan, Armenia. They form a key part of the Bologna Process, but also have wider influence. Agreed good practice in quality assurance globally aligns with the ESG. Currently, the UK is fully compliant with these guidelines, which helps other agencies around the world place trust in our systems.
The QAA’s membership of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) and its inclusion on the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) are also important elements of the UK’s involvement in the Bologna Process. Both help the UK to influence European policy, but perhaps of more relevance to providers is that they enable us to work with European agencies internationally. For example, there is growing UK sector interest in South America. The Spanish national quality assurance agency, ANECA, has carried out a significant amount of work in the region; it’s becoming clear that by working with ANECA, the QAA can help to provide the assurance needed in South America and minimise the burden on UK providers operating or considering operating there.
Many other European countries are seeking to expand their overseas recruitment, including making much of their European connections. We would risk putting UK universities and colleges at a competitive disadvantage if we were to stop taking our involvement in these European networks very seriously indeed – and the growth targets would start to look even more ambitious.
Fiona Crozier is head of international at the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education and is a former vice-president of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education.