Transnational education guidelines: there is work to be done

Fabrizio Trifirò explores the difficulties of quality assurance across borders

November 29, 2016
international travel

Last week, Times Higher Education reported on a paper I delivered at the 11th European Quality Assurance Forum. The piece questioned the value of quality assurance guidelines for transnational education (TNE).

This was somewhat misleading. The study presented at the forum focused on the importance for quality assurance agencies of cooperating across borders to cover any regulatory gaps and overlaps in effective and efficient ways. I’m therefore grateful for the opportunity to clarify my position in this blog. 

I made reference to guidelines potentially being "quite useless" in a conversation regarding the possibility of achieving a global framework for quality assuring TNE. Given the diversity of national higher education and quality assurance systems, any attempt to develop internationally agreed guidelines faces the challenge of being so general that it would be of little use to standardise and guide the practice of quality assuring TNE. 

But international and national guidelines for the quality assurance of TNE can be very useful indeed. For example, the Unesco/OECD Guidelines for Quality Provision in Cross-border Higher Education have played a crucial role in raising awareness about the quality assurance challenges posed, and the importance of cooperation between nations to "protect students from low-quality provision and disreputable providers". 

Since then, different initiatives have sought to respond to the Unesco/OECD’s call for strengthened cooperation in the quality assurance of TNE.

Recently, the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education-led Quality Assurance of Cross-Border Higher Education project produced a toolkit offering advice on the ways quality assurance agencies might enhance cooperation across borders. In particular, the QACHE Toolkit aims to encourage the sharing of information, data, intelligence and good practice between quality assurance agencies.

Ultimately, it seeks to improve reciprocal understanding and develop mutual trust, thus facilitating more effective, efficient and useful ways to cooperate across borders when it comes to quality assuring TNE. 

Following this project, the Quality Assurance Agency undertook a study looking at the challenges and limits to inter-agency cooperation posed by the broader regulatory frameworks in which national agencies operate. The thrust of this study, which will soon be published in Quality in Higher Education, is that cross-border cooperation among quality assurance agencies is key to developing and implementing shared international principles to protect TNE students.

Guidelines for the quality assurance of TNE can be useful, it is their implementation at a global level that is challenging without strengthened cooperation. 

In the UK, the QAA, working together with the sector, developed a chapter of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, to help HE providers fulfil their responsibility to safeguard the standards and quality of their awards, wherever these are delivered. This section of the Quality Code is the key reference point of the new review method for TNE on which the QAA has just launched a consultation.

The new TNE review process has been developed as part of the new contractual arrangement for international activities with the four UK funding bodies, and aims to provide assurance for the public, students, overseas partners, funders and governments that students studying for a UK qualification overseas receive a high quality academic experience, at the standard expected of UK higher education qualifications. 

Please take the opportunity to read what we're proposing and have your say. The consultation closes on 23 December this year.

Continuing to evolve and improve our own UK TNE quality assurance approach is crucial to ensure that it remains fit for purpose in the context of the growing importance of TNE provision for UK higher education.

Fabrizio Trifirò is international adviser for the UK's Quality Assurance Agency.

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