Britain's reputation for excellence in the multi-billion pound overseas student market received another blow this week when the Quality Assurance Agency discovered serious weaknesses at three operations in Malaysia.
The QAA identified major problems at three out of six universities it inspected in the region, which is British higher education's biggest customer. The news could further damage the diminishing market in recruitment from Malaysia to Britain.
The three institutions that fell short of QAA standards were Liverpool John Moores University, the University of Hertfordshire and Robert Gordon University.
LJMU's partnership with the Malaysian Workers' Institute of Technology was subject to the most serious criticisms. The QAA said that external examining arrangements for LJMU's franchised courses "are not robust or reliable and are not the same as those adopted for programmes in the UK".
It added: "The university is not yet in a position to be sure that the academic challenge presented through the franchised courses matches that of the parent programmes."
The QAA's code of practice states that "the academic standards of all awards made under a collaborative arrangement must be equivalent to those of comparable awards for programmes delivered by an awarding institution itself".
The QAA also raised questions about the "ability of the University of Hertfordshire to fulfil its awarding-body responsibility for the assurance of academic standards" of the courses run at its Malaysian partner, Kolej Linton. The QAA found evidence that Hertfordshire's assessment processes were "over-generous" and that action to tackle problems had been "slow or ineffective".
Robert Gordon University was warned: "The university is not yet in a position to be fully confident that it can safeguard the academic standard" of the award offered through its Malaysian partner, the Institut Teknologi Pertama. The university has been told to "implement without delay" plans to ensure its UK external examiners are more closely involved in Malaysia and "to ensure that there is greater vigilance on such matters as plagiarism".
Malaysia is the biggest customer in Britain's Pounds 1.5 billion international higher education business, with almost 17,000 fee-paying Malaysians studying in Britain. But recruitment from Malaysia has slumped 44 per cent, according to the British Council, as countries such as Australia and the United States take a bigger slice of the market and Malaysia expands its provision.
The three other universities that were audited - Nottingham Trent, De Montfort and Northumbria - were given a largely clean bill of health, with "proper stewardship" of quality.
But an overview report of all franchised provision found a number of areas for concern, including staff development. It warned that the collaborative
relationships should be "true partnerships, not merely convenient collaborative ventures".