Universities that offer courses overseas will be inspected more rigorously to avoid scandals over quality.
A tougher Quality Assurance Agency regime is one of a number of proposals in International Education: Global Growth and Prosperity, a policy paper that sets out how the UK can make more money from selling education abroad.
Speaking at the launch of the strategy in London on 29 July, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said that oversight “needs to be beefed up”.
“There will be a lot of future growth in provision overseas, and I have asked the QAA to make sure it has got the proper regime in place,” he said.
The UK’s highest-profile quality scandal in recent years led to the downfall of the University of Wales, which announced the cessation of its huge overseas degree validation programme in October 2011 after a series of critical QAA and media reports.
Mr Willetts said that the watchdog would introduce a “risk-based” inspection scheme for overseas courses similar to the approach that will be adopted domestically later this year.
The approach sets more frequent or tougher inspections for institutions deemed to be more of a hazard.
The strategy also commits the government to “encourage and promote” Futurelearn, the UK’s massive open online course platform, which has 21 UK universities on board so far.
Mr Willetts said that Moocs were not an alternative to conventional higher education but would offer a “taster” to overseas students who could then come to the UK to complete full degrees.
As a result, Moocs would pose more of a threat to recruitment agents than conventional universities and could help to cut out agency “middle men” for international students, the minister added.
The strategy also warns that universities’ traditional charitable governance structure “does not lend itself to rapid growth”, adding that such forms are “conservative in their approach to risk” and hence could hinder global expansion.
The structure of the University of Law, which became the UK’s first for-profit university in November, “could be of interest” as a potential alternative, it says.
Politics versus economics
Perhaps the most politically significant aspect of the strategy is its prediction that the UK’s overseas student numbers will grow by 15 to 20 per cent over the next five years, based on average growth since 2010.
This would equate to an extra 90,000 students, a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills statement says.
Such growth is predicted despite tougher visa conditions introduced by the coalition, including the end of the automatic right to work after graduation, and the government’s aim to limit net migration to the “tens of thousands” by the next general election in 2015.
The report also shows that higher education students who came to the UK contributed just over £10.1 billion to the country’s export earnings in 2011 through living expenditure and tuition fees.
Education as a whole earned the country £17.5 billion in total, while transnational higher education such as validation agreements and branch campuses brought in £300 million.