Scrutinise those overseas links

January 1, 1999

Problems in management of UK universities and colleges' overseas partnerships seem to be becoming a running sore in British higher education, the latest being the just-published National Audit Office report on overseas operations at Southampton Institute between 1994 and 1997.

What is to be done? It is nearly five years since education ministers had their attention drawn to local concerns about the activities of certain British universities in Malaysia and Singapore and two years since the first comprehensive report was published by the Higher Education Quality Council, setting out the findings of the first audit programme of overseas audits.

Some institutions - not very many, it must be said - receive very positive reports, with many examples of good practice. At the other extreme are some highly critical reports that refer to serious failings in many aspects of quality control.

The main areas of weakness persist. Institutions are still not exercising sufficient care in establishing partnerships, in controlling the conditions under which courses are validated, in monitoring the progress of courses, in assessing students, or in recognising and describing the subsequent academic achievement.

What are the reasons? Perhaps the beginning of wisdom is to acknowledge the economic imperatives that drive much of this activity and lead, all too often, to quality controls being bypassed or undervalued. This is compounded by weaknesses in institutional quality procedures that can often mean central mechanisms failing to get a handle on what is being done in the institution's name.

Finally, universities and colleges frequently overlook the cultural and linguistic factors and assume that, with a bit of effort and goodwill, the key features of a UK higher education programme can be reproduced abroad. The audit reports show that in many cases these assumptions are naive, and that there is often a gulf between what in the UK would be seen as good practice and what would be seen elsewhere as necessary for students to fulfil the requirements of the course.

We should not make rods for our own backs by pretending student experience and achievement on a locally delivered overseas course can ever be fully comparable to what that student would have experienced and achieved in the UK.

The bodies representing the institutions in Britain, Australia and America should get together with the relevant regulatory agencies to discuss how a level playing field in terms of external regulation can be established. While the overseas activities of British universities and colleges are subject to direct external audit, those of their Australian and American counterparts remain effectively unregulated, other than by the institutions themselves.

Vice-chancellors and principals, if they have not already done so, should review their institutions' overseas operations, and not only those that may involve an overseas partner, to satisfy themselves that they comply with the HEQC code. This action should be reinforced by advice from the representative bodies to their members to the effect that institutions that repeatedly receive critical audit reports will be asked to withdraw from membership until the problems concerned have been put right.

What else does "self-regulation" mean?

Roger Brown

Principal

Southampton Institute

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