Quality standards can suffer in overseas export

Examining collaborative provision in an Asian partnership left John Buglear doubting the fitness of such ventures

November 14, 2013

It operated on lines that many UK staff would deem uncomfortable. I recall the student in a class of one being set ‘group work’

Five years ago I received an email inviting me to apply to be an external examiner for another UK university. I would be looking at its collaborative provision at a partner institution in Southeast Asia.

More than 100,000 air miles later, my term of office has come to an end. I’d like to share my experiences – although I won’t name the institutions involved as my purpose is to convey my concerns, not to pillory colleagues who continue to try hard to maintain consistency and standards along a stretched intellectual supply chain.

The Asian partner institution is one of a considerable number of private sector providers that emerged to offer an alternative to the more traditional academic courses available at the country’s established public sector universities. Many of its students are local and of ethnicities that are disadvantaged in the competition for places at public universities.

In recent years the institution has also drawn large numbers of international students to its doors, and in the five years of my association with the place its student numbers more than doubled.

This rapid growth was associated with an expanding portfolio of modules and a consequent increase in the number of external examiners. Alongside expansion came greater autonomy. The institution moved away from delivering imported, “franchised” courses and began to fashion its own, which were validated by the partner university in the UK.

Much of what I found worried me. The institution operated on lines that many staff in UK higher education would probably deem uncomfortable, if not downright unacceptable. As a “client-focused” institution, it recruited as many as four or even five cohorts of students each year. This sometimes resulted in absurdly tiny classes and strange assessment experiences – I recall the case of the sole student in a class of one being set a “group work” project. In dealing with so many different cohorts of students, academic staff were left with little if any time for intellectual stimulation or to refresh courses. Exams were mechanical, consisting of pub quiz‑style questions: “What are the FIVE components of X’s model?”; “Identify the SIX stages of the Y process.”

As an external, my task was to scrutinise 30 or so modules at three levels. Requests for approval of assessment briefs and exam papers came thick and fast: in May this year I received 20, and in June I received 26.

There were also four week-long visits a year to the partner institution when, battling jet lag, I would scrutinise student work, meet with staff and attend exam boards. My employer values the role of externals and tolerated these absences, although I did occasionally have to take the time as annual leave and spent most evenings dealing with issues from my job at Nottingham Trent University. At £500 per visit (gross), my external examining was the hardest money I’d earned since working as a factory labourer in my student days.

First year modules were dealt with by “internals” from the university in the UK. Unfortunately, the timetabling of meetings generally meant that internals’ visits occurred in the week before externals’ visits, leaving little opportunity to discuss modules with those who designed and delivered or approved them in the UK.

Then there was the heavy hand of the government quality body. Dominated by academics from state institutions, it appeared to block much-needed changes in areas where there were pressing pedagogical problems.

So why didn’t I simply pull out before the end of my term? Others did. The answer boils down to tenacity, curiosity and obligation. I like to finish what I start, I was fascinated by how the whole process worked and I felt that I had a duty to the institutions and the colleagues concerned – particularly as I encountered some of the most dedicated academics I have ever met. But my experience does raise serious questions about whether we are doing enough to meet the challenges that arise from the expansion of the “export” model of UK HE plc, and I hope the sector will reflect on this.

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