A case of quality control

February 11, 2000

British universities are delivering education overseas and must ensure a service of a high standard, says Michael Brown.

Many British universities are successfully delivering quality programmes overseas but this does not make exciting headlines and it is not prominently reported. Any difficulties are. This leads to the dangerous impression (perhaps including governments) that such activities are generally poorly executed.

Given that the British press is widely read overseas in the very countries where British universities are successfully delivering quality education against fierce competition from such countries as Australia and the United States, selective reporting can be debilitating and exasperating.

To achieve success when working overseas requires great care, an uncompromising commitment to demonstrable quality and a recognition of one's responsibilities to the registered students. The successful experience of De Montfort University in South Africa illustrates all of these essential requirements, and perhaps may help and encourage others.

De Montfort started its work in South Africa six years ago, seeking ways in which it could contribute its expertise and experience to assist the process of reconstruction and development of the new South Africa.

Early on, the university agreed to a limited franchise relationship with a well-established "not-for-profit" college backed by a South African trust to assist financially disadvantaged but talented South Africans. The college, with a successful record of delivering business degree qualifications, was carefully checked out with the relevant authorities. The visiting De Montfort validation team approved the academic provision subject to some firm conditions.

One year later the team returned and observed that, despite warnings, some of the conditions had not been met. Although the academic progress of the students was not unsatisfactory, De Montfort does not tolerate any deviation from validation requirements and the contract with the college was terminated.

The university still had an obligation to some 200 registered students who had reasonable expectations of continuing their De Montfort University business programmes. To meet these responsibilities, the university decided that it had to take direct control. It achieved this by establishing a not-for-profit South African company, renting suitable premises, hiring distinguished academic staff and installing the required equipment.

Senior United Kingdom staff were initially seconded to South Africa to ensure that a high-quality, directly managed operation was established and maintained. The teaching programmes recommenced within three weeks and the university now has a successful and thriving campus in Johannesburg.

When delivering education programmes in another country it is vital that the relevant legislative and regulatory framework is monitored and tracked and that steps are taken to comply with local requirements. At a very early stage in its administration, the South African government gave a clear signal that it was determined to ensure the quality of education and training delivered in South Africa.

Two instruments were created to deliver this policy: the South African Qualifications Authority that approves all programmes delivered in South Africa and the register of private higher education institutions. To be registered, all programmes have to be approved by SAQA and several conditions also need to be met relating to equivalence of standards and responsibilities towards registered students.

Legislation required institutions to achieve registration by a specific date or cease trading. De Montfort sought early SAQA approval and registration and in February 1999 it became the first registered private university in South Africa.

To mirror the UK position, the university sought and obtained specific AMBA professional accreditation of the MBA delivered in Johannesburg by South African teaching staff. This is now the only taught MBA programme accredited by AMBA in Africa, and the only one in the world delivered overseas by local staff, demonstrating unambiguously the quality of the South African staff.

This policy of achieving high academic quality that is also endorsed by a variety of local bodies and international professional bodies is critical. In South Africa, this is because the most important aspect of the university's work is the development of talented and skilled graduates, who are equipped to make a contribution to the reconstruction and development of their country.

They have the unambiguous assurance that they have achieved qualifications of high academic and professional standing. The student and graduate population includes people from all traditions and races and this diversity of experience and background enriches the education processes. The dedication of the students is impressive, many travelling exceedingly long distances using basic public transport and managing to undertake private study in very difficult circumstances.

Several graduates are already chief executives of major corporations or in senior positions in government departments. Others have been given the confidence and skills to establish their own successful businesses rather than seeking employment. This is exactly what South Africa needs.

A focus on quality delivery and student commitment are the key ingredients for long-term success overseas.

Michael Brown, pro vice-chancellor of De Montfort University, writes in a personal capacity.

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