UK quality guidelines perpetuate colonialism

March 16, 2001

Our concepts and language are being pressed on the overseas partners of UK institutions, argues Pieta Monks

The United States has lost the cold war. The West is in the throes of an economic depression, and much of it has voluntarily become communist.

Like their US counterparts, universities in the United Kingdom face bankruptcy. Where possible, they set up agreements and partnerships with prosperous Soviet organisations that can offer aid and know-how. A UK university asks them to validate its new MA modules in Marxism, renationalisation without compensation procedures and whole student assessment.

To check that these British courses match their rigorous quality requirements, the Soviets dispatch a steering group, which is horrified by what it finds. The MA has fewer overall class contact hours than a comparable Soviet programme has in a week. The students, who do not even have to attend every day, are scruffy, over-familiar with their lecturers, complain about their marks and lack discipline. Student assessment is mechanical, based only on objective tests. And as the validation exercise is carried out in Russian, the role of the British interpreters is vital, but they are unfamiliar with Russian pedagogical principles, concepts and educational terminology. There is also deep resentment and bewilderment from many of the senior academic and managerial staff about the relevance of Russian principles and the use of Russian language to assess their courses.

Of course, this is not the way it happened. The West won the cold war, and it now exports its educational ideology along with aid and know-how to the East. In the wake of scandals, British universities are taking the Quality Assurance Code of Practice for provision with overseas partners very seriously. But its guidelines are unhelpful in many ways, and they steer UK validation panels towards imposing our criteria, concepts and language on our partners when assessing foreign programmes.

The code states: "There is reasonable expectation that the holder of an award from a UK institution will have been taught and assessed in English." Why is this a reasonable expectation? Why should there not be an expectation that those UK universities entering collaborative overseas arrangements should have staff with fluency in the culture and language of the partner organisation? The code makes an exception for Welsh -but if for Welsh, why not for Russian? Ukrainian? Cantonese?

Language does not provide absolute equivalence of terms and concepts from one language to another. It reflects traditions and ideologies. The Russian system of education has developed different theories and structures from ours, and we can describe them only by paraphrasing once we understand that difference. If we use English as a medium, if we are not aware of the differences, if we work through a similarly unaware interpreter, the precise Russian terminology will be replaced by our own -which is not equivalent. We then use the wrong criteria to assess a misunderstood Russian educational programme.

The code pays lip service to different cultures and methodologies, but its guidelines do not encompass different educational traditions. They are too general in that they offer blanket guidelines for all foreign countries and educational systems (except the Welsh), and too specific in that the guidelines they propose are very difficult to follow unless we use UK criteria.

For example, the code says: "An awarding institution should consider the need to provide evidence of the extent to which student attainment matches any applicable subject benchmark standards and/or level descriptors in the UK qualifications frameworks." How do we measure student attainment where pedagogical practice and theory have no actual or linguistic equivalent in the UK?

Another difficulty is the irrelevance of some of the guidelines. How do you determine a benchmark standard when the subject itself has no equivalent at that level? A course to retrain Russian civil servants who worked in a command economy to work in a democratic market situation has no counterpart over here.

The code's general guidelines are not thought through, and the emphasis on English as the rightfully dominant language of UK partnerships is breathtaking in its imperialist assumptions.

The liberalisation of "trade" in services including education under the General Agreement on Trade in Services aims to open public education to foreign-based corporate competition. At the Seattle World Trade Organisation talks, the emergence of a US-based global online education service fostered fears about the hegemony of the English language and western culture in a global economy. The code of practice creates the same fears.

Pieta Monks is senior lecturer in Russian and applied translation at the University of North London.

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