QAA rules on collaborations demand more from degree-awarding bodies

Universities should regularly inspect their collaborative partners to check on their financial stability and legal status, according to beefed-up Quality Assurance Agency requirements.

August 23, 2012

The new guidance, which is out for consultation, places a greater responsibility on institutions to judge how risky a partnership is and how it fits into their broader strategy.

It comes nearly a year after the University of Wales pulled the plug on its validation business, which had 140 partners across 30 countries, in the wake of a series of controversies over its linked colleges.

There were 291,745 students studying for a UK degree overseas in 2010-11 who were not registered at a UK university, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

This is a 40 per cent rise on the previous year and a mark of the huge growth in the number of arrangements where overseas colleges award UK university degrees.

The draft QAA requirements say that degree-awarding bodies should "periodically" review collaborations to ensure that they are "achieving intended objectives, that partners are compatible, and to reassess the financial, legal, academic, ethical and reputational risks".

Due diligence on partners should be "refreshed periodically and also where circumstances change", for example when an arrangement is extended or the ownership of a partner changes.

Current guidance, released in 2010, recommends that institutions carry out due diligence on partners before they strike up agreements, but it does not say that they must conduct inspections afterwards.

The new advice comes after the University of Wales was found in 2011 by the QAA to have been "culpably credulous" when it failed to conduct thorough due diligence on the new owners of Turning Point Business School in Singapore.

In the new guidance there is more emphasis on ensuring that collaborations fit into a wider strategy. Collaboration should be "considered and purposeful", and institutions must have "appropriate staff capacity" to police the agreements, the draft says.

Universities have an explicit "contractual obligation" to see students through their programme of study if their partner pulls out or gets into financial difficulties, it adds.

Geoffrey Alderman, professor of history and politics at the University of Buckingham and a commentator on standards in UK universities, said that this assurance was "absolutely critical". "I was very pleased to see a contractual obligation because previously this hadn't been explicit," he said.

Such responsibility puts universities at risk of a "nightmare scenario" in which an overseas partner quits an arrangement and all the students have to be flown to the UK to complete their studies, he said.

This was a far greater incentive for universities to carry out regular financial due diligence on their partners, Professor Alderman added.

The new requirements are part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, which sets out what the QAA expects of providers.

The agency said that the revision was not a reaction to what happened with the University of Wales but was an attempt to take into account the new types of collaborative provision universities were now offering, such as employee training courses.

Roger Brown, professor of higher education management at Liverpool Hope University, said that collaborative deals were the "Achilles heel" of the quality assurance regime.

He argued that the QAA should devote far more of its resources to inspecting such partnerships.

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