There is a "strong case for concern" about the quality of UK courses delivered to overseas students in their own countries, researchers have concluded, writes Tony Tysome.
Analysis of the first data on "transnational" higher education has highlighted concerns about the motivation - and motives - of UK universities delivering their courses abroad.
The study found that this burgeoning area of activity is subject to limited oversight or regulation. It found that many of the institutions involved are relatively inexperienced and slow to make improvements and innovate in the face of a high and growing level of student demand.
The report, from the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, warns that institutions may also be forced to make changes in how they operate abroad because of stiffer competition to attract fee-paying students from universities in other countries.
The changes could involve improving quality assurance, better integration of home and overseas students and offering a broader range of subjects overseas.
A third possible scenario is the prospect of host nations imposing increasingly punitive and potentially contradictory quality assurance regulations.
The report draws on data for 2002-03 published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which has for the first time collected information about UK higher education programmes taken outside the country.
It notes that while this is the most detailed quantitative account of this market to date, Hesa's data are far from complete, which is probably due to under-reporting by institutions.
An assessment of the implications of the information available suggests that this provides evidence that many institutions involved in this market are not entirely on top of their operations, and have yet to develop sophisticated strategies.
The report argues that many of the criticisms levelled at institutions'
international recruitment activities four years ago, in a report commissioned by the British Council, apply equally to their shortcomings in the transnational market today.
It adds: "It is unlikely that an institution that is not able to make a full and accurate return to Hesa in this area has at the same time crafted a detailed, institution-wide transnational strategy."
The fact that the delivery of courses overseas is a soft market that is forecast to outstrip demand for international student places in the UK by 2020 has made institutions complacent about improving what they are offering, the report says.
An absence of third-party regulation means that almost nothing is known about student satisfaction in this area, or about retention or attainment rates.
The dominance of business studies as the preferred discipline in transnational higher education might help explain its cash and market-focused nature, the report adds. But this has led to suspicions in some host countries that UK institutions have been prepared to sacrifice quality in the pursuit of income.
The report says that while it is not arguing that the majority of UK transnational provision is of poor quality or designed simply to increase income, the complexity of the market and lack of information about it mean that there is a strong cause "for concern and insufficient evidence to the contrary".
Possible solutions include greater cooperation between quality assurance agencies in different countries, or for institutions to revert to using specialist agencies for international quality assurance.
Without such safeguards, "there is a risk that mushrooming transnational education could lead to opportunities for fly-by-night institutions to enter into the fray and lead to an erosion in the quality of education", the report warns.
"Governments will need to invest more resources in establishing quality assurance mechanisms, principally to provide information to the public," it adds.