Get label conscious

April 5, 2002

The UK must keep an eye on plans to establish global quality regimes, says Peter Williams

Perhaps it was inevitable. Before the globalisation of higher education has got much beyond the experimental stage, the regulators have appeared on the scene. A recent internal analysis undertaken by the Quality Assurance Agency suggests that no fewer than seven major initiatives are under way worldwide with the overt or covert intention of setting up international structures to regulate transnational education or to create international quality assurance, recognition or accreditation systems. The United Kingdom needs to take these developments seriously.

Who are the would-be panjandrums of world higher education? Some of the names are familiar: Unesco, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Commission. Others are less so: the European Universities Association and the International Association of University Presidents.

The quality-assurance networks are active, too. Some European countries such as the Netherlands are promoting initiatives for international accreditation and evaluation systems in Europe. And looming over them all are proposals for a global market overseen by the General Agreement on Trade in Services, which would free transnational higher education from the restraints imposed in many countries.

Although all these bodies are acting independently, their activities can be divided into three groups: development of international accreditation systems; schemes for the international recognition of qualifications; and schemes for the mutual recognition of quality-assurance agencies and their judgements.

The most ambitious-sounding is the Commission on Global Accreditation set up by the IAUP (an associate member of the EUA). This is linked with Unesco's "Global Forum for Quality Assurance, Accreditation and the Recognition of Qualifications" and the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education. It plans a "global quality label" for quality-assurance and accreditation agencies.

Because accreditation means many different things worldwide and frequently generates hostility and confusion, the term "quality label" is gaining currency among activists in this area. The present initiatives suggest that the new quality labels - to be offered variously to programmes, qualifications, institutions or quality-assurance and accreditation agencies - would be granted either after desk exercises, which might be able to offer only limited guarantees of quality and standards, or after inspections by new international agencies, which might force them to use lowest-common-denominator approaches to avoid getting into diplomatic hot water. They thus run the risk of becoming window-dressing exercises devoid of any real attempt to tackle the difficult and serious business of assuring academic quality and standards internationally.

In many countries, fear and suspicion are behind the sudden interest in international labels. Fear of the rapid spread of international private higher education of doubtful quality, fear of the downgrading of higher education as a public service, fear of a dilution of national cultural identity, fear of the rise of bogus accreditation agencies and degree mills and even a simple suspicion of the unknown and unfamiliar are all prompting a protectionist, or regulatory, position towards transnational education.

Elsewhere, opportunity and the market are the drivers. The universities of central and eastern Europe see a Europe-wide accreditation label as a way of obtaining parity of esteem with their western neighbours. Some western European countries share this aspiration, seeing European accreditation as a means to extend their influence in an increasingly competitive international market. There is, too, a wish to boost student mobility and to ensure that would-be students have access to information about quality and standards. In addition, many fear the entry of well-established US accreditation agencies offering well-known labels in subject areas such as business studies, where labels matter.

According to their advocates, the proposed schemes would be voluntary. For its part, the QAA will try to ensure that nothing is done to impose unnecessary burdens on UK higher education institutions or to limit their ability to provide good quality programmes and qualifications in other countries.

But we in the UK would probably also do well to assume that any international quality labels and other similar schemes that do get off the ground and survive will, in time, achieve a de facto authority that we will be unable to ignore. Already, hydra-headed European initiatives, covering benchmarks, quality evaluation systems, and accreditation (and "meta-accreditation") schemes are being heavily backed and funded by the European Commission as part of efforts to create the Bologna-inspired "European higher education space" or "area" by 2010. It is now 2002. There are just eight years to go.

Peter Williams is chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency.

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