THE BRITISH Council has ordered a probe into the franchising activities of British universities in Israel to quell concerns over the quality of courses.
The Israeli government is threatening to impose tough new quality control rules which could seriously curtail the rapid growth of courses set up by overseas institutions, in an effort to stamp out shoddy standards.
It is worried that the spread of the franchising market, in which British universities are heavily involved, is the result of institutions cashing in on the direct link in Israel between higher education qualifications and earning power.
Ministers have drafted legislation which would require all institutions setting up franchised courses to ensure that a significant proportion of teaching is done by their own lecturers, rather than by staff from a local college.
They are worried that students will not receive the same quality of tuition as those based at the British university which has set up the course, and they fear the language barrier could also cause difficulties for quality assessors.
But the British Council believes the Israeli authorities' fears are largely unfounded. David Elliott, the council's head of higher education, said: "Our only concern at present is that the Israeli authorities' worries may cause activities to be cut back. We want to support and encourage institutions to develop their activities in Israel, and to get it right."
The British Council has asked the Higher Education Quality Council to conduct a fact-finding tour of Israel, to check the scale and type of activities British institutions are involved in.
A conference may be held in Israel in an attempt to clarify what quality assurance systems are in place, and to reassure the Israeli authorities. "Part of the problem is that the Israelis are used to a somewhat conservative and inflexible higher education system, which does not recognise things like accreditation of prior learning. They find it hard to understand how franchising can work," Mr Elliott said.
Roger Brown, chief executive of the HEQC, said: "We will now have to give serious consideration to including Israel in the audit process next year."