Quality assurance of online transnational higher education

Online and hybrid degrees are booming, but work needs to be done to maintain the reputation of Australian online university degrees in the transnational education space, writes Fion Lim

Fion Choon Boey Lim 's avatar
University of Technology Sydney
22 Jun 2023
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Post-Covid, in 2023, universities worldwide have seen students’ preferences change around the mode of learning. While online learning is not new, the post-pandemic period has brought an increase in online or hybrid delivery in Australian universities. And these institutions are now looking to cross borders with their online degrees – adding even more complexity to transnational higher education.

The implications of expansion reach far beyond quality assurance around online degrees in cross-border higher education. Many Australian universities work with online programme management (OPM) providers to convert courses designed for face-to-face learning to online delivery. Grey areas have appeared, and the extent of collaboration under third-party arrangements has attracted the attention of those keen to ensure the quality of the programmes. If a third-party arrangement is involved, a degree delivered online in a transnational education space can quickly become a multi-partner relationship. Research on third-party arrangements has revealed concerns about workload and fears that profit-driven objectives might overtake academic quality in terms of importance.

To overcome negative perceptions of the quality of third-party arrangements for online delivery of degrees, it helps to consider a few parameters.

What are the wider implications for the host country’s students when online degrees cross borders?

Universities should consider the wider implications for students in the host country when online degrees cross borders. Online degrees are seemingly not perceived as being of equivalent status to traditional face-to-face transnational degrees offered in the hosting country or international onshore degrees. For example, foreign degrees offered entirely online in China cannot receive recognition from the Chinese Service Centre for Scholarly Exchange (CSCSE). An unrecognised qualification would affect students’ ability to change hukou (the residential permit status required for settling in a city in China). Anecdotally, Chinese employers will likely require verification of foreign degrees for recruitment and promotion. A university could face tarnishing its brand if graduates complained to the CSCSE, and this could jeopardise its ability to attract international students and research collaborations.

Similarly, markets such as Malaysia have less recognition of degrees delivered fully online.

Universities should consider this risk factor to ensure that online degrees provide host-country students with employability value after graduation.

Clearer marketing beyond price considerations

Universities must have clearer marketing beyond price considerations and fanciful messages. Without a physical campus for students to visit or see and assess the quality of teaching staff and learning space, where a degree is no longer an alternative pathway for migration, the easiest way for one to infer quality is through rankings, accreditation and other marketing messages, regardless of whether these are good indicators of teaching quality.

Online, students have ample choice as online delivery has converted competition based on geographical location to a global marketplace. Australian universities must be conscious to avoid adopting a cost-leadership strategy as it can spiral into a price war.

Repositioning the value of online degrees from a perspective of social good

Australian transnational higher education and online degrees are often positioned as offering a “private good”. To avoid the negative perception of quality, especially if the online degree crosses borders under the third-party arrangement of transnational education, universities could reposition the value of online degrees from a “social good” angle – where education contributes to the well-being of the society where it operates. In its definition of higher education, Unesco doesn’t stop at economic, technological or social change. The organisation recognises that higher education is “a passport to economic security and a stable future” for students in vulnerable circumstances.

Transnational higher education has provided many who could be deprived of an education opportunity with the chance to study; online delivery has permitted many who couldn’t afford the time and resources to travel to another country for higher education. At times, an online degree could be the only accessible path to a degree, as for many who pursue a degree with the University of People. Universities that communicate how online degrees could contribute to society will likely be perceived more favourably in the host countries.

Decision-makers in Australian universities must closely examine what they aim to achieve as they expand aggressively. Higher education is the engine for advancement in so many ways. The objective of moving online and online across borders must be considered beyond economic measures to ensure sustainability and quality.

This article represents the view of the author and not the opinions of any institutions the author associates with. The information presented is for informational purposes only and does not imply any compromise in quality by any institutions.

Fion Choon Boey Lim is an associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney.

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