Time to defend UK courses in other realms

April 4, 1997

A recently circulated British Council report points out that there are more than 1,200 private colleges operating in Israel, offering qualifications validated by foreign universities. Britain is now by far the largest provider in the country of off-shore courses.

Yet the Israeli Council for Higher Education has had no control over this burgeoning private sector. And a bill now before the Knesset, seeking to remedy the deficiency, has come under fierce attack in Israel and from some foreign university institutions. However, undaunted by opposition from certain vice chancellors to its 1996 experiment auditing British degrees delivered abroad, the country's Higher Education Quality Council, is organising a second round of overseas audits The alleged activities of a small number of institutions are said to have triggered these reactions.

In the UK, too, the funding councils have expressed their frustration at not being able to regulate the activities of qualifications issued overseas. Here we now have the Quality Assurance Agency - pledged to assess the quality of all provision, however funded and wherever delivered - but the resource implications have yet to be calculated, and in practice it is likely that overseas provision will merely be sampled.

The overriding consideration with regard to overseas courses should be quality, not profit. And it is dangerous - and academically dishonest - to locate the monitoring arrangements for overseas courses outside the academic structure of an institution, and in, say, its marketing arm. But many commercial agents, with only the slightest acquaintance with the quality requirements of higher education, do seem to concentrate on maximising profit, sometimes by false or misleading advertising.

Even so, there are good reasons why overseas provision exists. No offshore initiative, indeed, would be launched if there were not a market for it. In Israel, far too many students are chasing far too few university places.

The Israeli university system is well-developed, and world-class, but is very conservative, and the universities generally are not allowed to validate private colleges' programmes. New forms of learning, such as work-based study and the accreditation of prior learning, are viewed with suspicion by the Israeli educational elite. A first degree is essential for progression to a master's qualification, so the idea of accepting those without a bachelor's degree, on the basis of their prior relevant experience, is viewed by the universities as little short of a deliberate lowering of standards.

Now, Israeli universities are seeing some of their best students lured away by the opportunity to study relevant degrees offered by way of British collaborative provision. Besides this, today, many non-graduates in the public sector are seeking a higher education qualification in order to claim automatic salary increases. The outcome is the powerful array of vested interests - the established universities, the CHE, the finance ministry - all anxious to curb British offshore activities.

Yet, I believe, Israeli universities offer nothing to compare with the formidable armoury of audit, assessment and inspection that British higher education now has in place. And I doubt that the motives of foreign governments in criticising British offshore provision are altruistic. Third-world countries tend to be driven by rigid economic models prescribing the proportion of 18-year-olds entering higher education and the subjects studied. Successful Western universities operating offshore undermine those models. Indeed, a favourite tactic of third-world governments is to denigrate British degree standards, and to legislate against the equal treatment of those holding British degrees which have been obtained outside the UK.

Under the draft Israeli legislation all higher education institutions operating in Israel but offering foreign-validated programmes would be regarded as branches of the validating university, and would be obliged to seek a licence from the CHE. Staff at the branches would need to hold academic appointments from the validating or parent university, and the CHE would want the main employment of some staff to be with the parent institutions. Programmes offered by branches would need to be almost identical to programmes offered by parent institutions. Be-spoke programmes, designed specifically for Israeli higher education, would be outlawed.

I think these proposals are out of all proportion to the legitimate concerns voiced by Israeli policy-makers about offshore provision. The British Council is right to draw attention to the need for vigilance in the marketing of degree programmes. But in turn, we should expect our government to use its influence to moderate the draft law, and to mount, throughout Asia, a robust defence of British academic qualifications.

Geoffrey Alderman is pro-vice chancellor at Middlesex University.

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