Unbecoming foreign trip up

July 5, 1996

India's University Grants Committee is planning to set up entry rules for foreign universities planning to provide higher education to the immense and potentially lucrative Indian market (page seven). The news comes a week after reports that Wigan and Leigh College has set up a private company in Delhi to offer degree courses awarded by a second United Kingdom institution, Southampton Institute, and validated by a third, Nottingham Trent University. Southampton's franchising arrangements are the subject of recent criticism by the Higher Education Quality Council and current investigation by Nottingham Trent.

The British Council and the Indian authorities are both getting worried. The Indian UGC is worried, of course, about a much wider range of incomers than those from the UK. The British Council worries about activities in a wider range of markets than India.

Malaysia, for example, while eager to encourage private providers of higher education to set up shop in Malaysia to help meet demand for higher education without attracting students (and cash) out of the country, is also concerned that those providing such services do so to a high standard.

Universities in developed countries are increasingly looking to increase their recruitment of overseas students, whether to study in their own country or in the host country. The Americans and the Australians are particularly aggressive in this field. Like the UK, both have the huge asset of English on which they can capitalise and all three have a burning desire to attract students who pay above the going rate as a means of earning additional income for hard-pressed universities.

This enthusiasm can rapidly engender dis-taste. It is unbecoming, indeed morally suspect, for the world's richest countries to tout for custom round the world in order to subsidise the costs of higher education to their own home students. Why should Indians or Malaysians subsidise British or German students?

Britain had, and probably still has, an enviable reputation overseas for high-quality higher education. In today's world of knowledge-based production, that is an asset the country should be developing by every means it can. But instead that asset is being put at risk by a failure to ensure that what is offered is of guaranteed quality.

The refusal to sort out funding problems at home is driving higher education institutions into the overseas market for the wrong reasons and in ways that are not always appropriate. However, because the revenue is so badly needed and sorting out funding at home is so politically fraught, there is huge reluctance to do anything that might diminish this revenue stream and put institutions at risk. The Higher Education Quality Council has been bravely venturing into this area but it has no real teeth beyond the power of publicity and gets precious little backing from those in a position to act on its findings, namely the institutions whose reputation is at risk.

It is widely assumed that the Dearing committee's main job is to sort out funding issues. Certainly more money is urgently needed, too urgently to await Dearing's recommendations. But the key to resolving that problem lies with the institutions. They have the power to act any time they choose, leaving Dearing with the rather simple task of recommending a suitable reform of the loans system to avoid students having to pay up-front.

The real challenge for Dearing is not money but accreditation. Higher education has ducked this issue for over a decade. Current wrangling over the form the new higher education quality agency should take is symptomatic of how difficult it is. But difficult or not, it must be cracked and cracked quickly if the damage being done to our international reputation both by stories of sliding standards at home and by entrepreneurial adventures abroad is to be halted.

The first need is for a mechanism whereby institutions or courses can be accredited wherever they are provided, and de-accredited if what they offer is not up to standard or not what it purports to be. The second need is for an information service that will allow anyone, at home or overseas, to check whether the course they contemplate taking is or is not accredited.

The Internet happily makes the second rather easy. Already the THES Internet Service carries research rankings and quality assessments by subject in all publicly funded institutions. This service is now flagged on the British Council web site, and can be readily expanded given the raw material.

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