Securing offshore interests

January 26, 2001

UK institutions operating abroad should encourage quality controls for the good of international education, says Ray Wild.

The internationalisation of British higher education is a long and incomplete process.

Before 1982, universities were only marginally interested in international students. But things changed after the cuts of the early 1980s and competition for foreign students, and their fees, increased.

In the early 1990s, driven by competition at home, universities began to go "offshore", feeding off the good reputation of UK higher education. Many business schools, and some universities, became international businesses, operating in several countries. Some establishments currently have more students offshore than on.

We are now, however, experiencing a reaction to these invasions. Governments are seeking to regulate or restrict the activities of non-domestic establishments. They want foreign providers to register, establish local facilities, use local research active staff and submit to audit.

Conflict seems unavoidable. The South African quality body recently lost a court case brought against it. The foreign providers argue that there is a market for what they offer - internationally recognised and "transportable" qualifications. They maintain they are not in direct competition with (often state-funded and so cheaper) local programmes. They point out that they are adding value in areas where local provision is inadequate and that they are becoming a benchmark of value.

Governments or their agencies, however, fear exploitation of their education markets. They have concerns about low-quality providers and programmes. They seek to protect their public and state-funded institutions. They are acting now because they know it will become even more difficult to control in the future. Distance-learning courses provided by the internet can cross country borders undetected. The barriers are now being erected against imports with a locally taught component.

International providers are angry, but it is clear that the national authorities are correct in their intentions. They are just trying to do what the Quality Assurance Agency is doing in the United Kingdom - to uncover and highlight poor quality and promote standards.

We should wish them success since students deserve the best. It is doubtless irritating, but nevertheless reassuring to know that competitors based in other countries that do not have the same domestic controls as the UK are subject to some controls abroad and, therefore, are not unduly advantaged.

UK institutions might wish that the QAA's regulation of them might also suffice for national governments. But this recognition can come only when local experience has built up and the aims, if not the practice, of local regulatory provision are clear. Until then, UK higher education establishments should support the development of regulatory approval and accreditation systems in the foreign markets in which they operate. In this way, their standing will be recognised, and a further stage of their internationalisation will be accomplished. Then they will have made an additional valuable educational contribution abroad.

Ray Wild is principal of Henley Management College.

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