Transparency gives lead in international market

January 30, 1998

Two groups of senior international educationists were in Britain last week to learn about reform and quality assurance. Rebecca Walton reports.

THE UNITED KINGDOM is seen worldwide as a natural laboratory for educational change. The reforms which have taken place over the past ten years may be judged as good or bad but the process of bringing about such enormous and controlled change throughout the system is widely admired.

In pursuit of greater public accountability, greater efficiency and higher standards, the system, from nursery to postgraduate study, has been transformed. Power has been wrenched from the provider and the professional and given to the controlling agencies and the purchaser. The system has grown in size and diversity.

This has given us a transparent system with a wealth of statistics and carefully designed evaluation tools. Unlike very many other countries we can provide accurate figures for the cost of educating our students at all stages. Unlike probably all other countries we can immediately and easily rank our schools, rate the usefulness and originality of university research, explain the notion of "value added" when talking about children, not widgets, and have centrally established targets for performance improvement. All of these factors appeal to international specialists.

Much is known about the new systems internationally though perhaps less is understood. For many overseas observers the twin core of the reforms is quality assurance measures and commercialisation. Quality assurance measures serve the dual function of meeting the demands of funders for accountability and the needs of the consumers for product information. But the needs of the funders and the consumers are not exactly the same.

For a product being sold into a diverse and highly competitive market this assurance of quality is essential. Purchasers have one chance to get it right. Treated with care the existing system allows us to provide remarkably diverse and accurate information. It requires intelligent and informed interpretation.

Pressures on universities to sell hard overseas do occasionally result in the abuse of the system causing widespread damage to the reputation of British education as a whole. Trying to import to franchise partners quality systems incompatible with the host institution has run some UK institutions into difficulties. But the overall safeguards are firmly in place. Others want to know how to create them.

The UK's higher education quality assurance measures are comprehensive in the extreme. To an international audience they are always impressive in their reach.

Two groups of international senior educationists gathered in Britain last week to learn about education reform. Twenty-seven senior delegates drawn from around the world and a group of World Bank staff. So what did they make of the system? The answer must be that it depended on what they were looking for and whom they identified with.

Many were drawn from ministries of education including Chile, Saudi Arabia, Zambia, Thailand and Hungary: for them the British solutions chimed with the issues they are tussling with. In some cases they were gripped by the detail, inevitably tidied and simplified, and envious of the speed with which things seemingly move here.

For others, coming from higher education itself, the frequently mentioned concern is commercialisation and control of the system. On the face of it academic freedom is preserved yet targeted funding holds the whole system under a form of central control.

A recurring theme for all was the immeasurable personal and social benefits of education and the preservation of positive values throughout the system. Are we recognising and protecting these?

Rebecca Walton is director of education at the British Council.

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