Franchises in standards row

June 20, 2003

The British Council has warned that the nation's global academic reputation is under threat after analysis by The THES found quality-control weaknesses at almost a third of British universities' overseas operations.

Judy Powell, director of higher education at the British Council, said the findings were a matter of "serious concern" and called for a forum on what some academics have deemed a crisis. One academic said this week that UK universities were devaluing British degrees as they continued to cut corners to offer their qualifications abroad through badly managed franchise deals with private colleges overseas.

Alan Smithers, professor of higher education at the University of Liverpool, said: "Universities are cash-strapped, and franchising their courses abroad is a lucrative income stream. The temptation must be to match the degree course to what the students are capable of and to avoid failing students instead of fiercely maintaining standards."

The THES analysed all Quality Assurance Agency audit reports on British universities' franchised operations abroad published since 2000. In 37 reports, the agency found significant problems at 11 universities. In every case, the QAA said there could be only limited confidence in the British university's ability to safeguard the quality or standards of its degree courses offered abroad.

Problems included inferior assessment practices, practices that differed from those at home, lower entry standards than on home courses, insufficient supervision of standards, communications failures and misleading promotional materials.

Ms Powell said she would raise the issue at her next meeting with the QAA to seek more details. "We want to market ourselves globally on a basis of genuine quality. It is matter of concern we want to address straight away," she said. "We feel we have a system ... with a lot to be proud of, but we clearly cannot be complacent, and we must guard against anything that might cause standards to be undermined."

She added that the British Council would be happy to stage a forum with the sector to look at addressing the problems.

Professor Smithers said: "Qualifications are a form of currency. Some franchising is the equivalent of the chancellor printing more bank notes to get out of a financial crisis."

The THES findings came as the QAA this week published a critical report on Westminster University's partnership with International College of Music, Malaysia, to award Westminster music degrees. The QAA said: "In one important area - measures to safeguard the academic standards of its award - the university's procedures do not, at present, inspire confidence."

The QAA said the Malaysian college did not understand that Westminster should have "final authority" for the academic standard of the degrees, and neither of the two external examiners appeared to have any "experience of teaching, learning and assessment in a UK higher education institution".

Westminster said that the QAA's findings, from a 2000-01 visit, were broadly supportive and provided helpful direction that had already been acted on.

Peter Williams, the chief executive of the QAA, said that only three of the 11 franchises had serious shortcomings, two others had already taken remedial action and one had closed its link. "They show a range of limitations, and clearly a small number are seriously inadequate, but there is little doubt they have learned from the experience," he said. "As long as we are identifying weak institutions, people will have more confidence in the general quality of British higher education."

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