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Who Should Make Sure Overseas Education Programs Are Worth Their Salt?

Making sure that cross-border higher-education efforts offer quality programs can be a conundrum. The problem is that quality assurance remains centered in nations and defined by political borders. There is no shortage of organizations and proposals to remedy this problem, as we were reminded by the recent announcement of a new International Quality Group sponsored by the U.S.-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

But even in Europe, which because of the Bologna Process has been dealing with this issue longer than anyone, countries remain responsible for ensuring the quality of the higher education offered within their borders. Thus, when colleges and universities cross borders to offer their academic programs in a foreign land, they must deal with multiple expectations—and sometimes competing expectations—about how to assure the quality of their programs. Occasionally that might make them change the nature of their academic offerings. Therein lies the conundrum.

Of course, the primary responsibility for assuring the quality of programs should remain with the institution. It is the academic organization that has an ethical and, sometimes, legal expectation to provide the highest-quality academic experience to its students. And institutions can choose whether or not to comply with a different nation’s quality-assurance rules—they can opt out simply by not going there.

Whether it is conducted by a government agency, like in Britain, or a government-approved private organization, like in the United States, quality assurance has become an accepted responsibility of governments. Because of this, national borders remain important. Each country has its own, often quite different and sometimes contradictory, standards and procedures. What is allowed by one country may be prohibited by another.

For example, two of the most aggressive exporting nations, Britain and the United States, have very different policies regarding how institutions can export their programs. In the United States, regional accreditation agencies prohibit the franchising of curriculum and validation of degree programs, while the British system endorses such approaches. For example, Lancaster University, in England, has over 2,000 students studying in degree programs taught in its name by partner institutions in six different countries.

Differences also exist in the receiving nations. Some nations expect the program they import to comply with local regulations, while others establish different mechanisms to qualify cross-border providers. In Dubai, branch campuses can choose to participate in the federal ministry’s quality-assurance process and adapt to local standards, or to work with a separate government entity designed to ensure comparability between the home and branch campus.

One of the reasons for the diversity of approaches is that the quality-assurance movement is relatively new—beginning in the 1990s in most countries—and was begun in response to changing governance patterns and privatization of domestic institutions of higher education. Most countries have procedures that reflect the historical development of higher education within their borders, and require multinational universities to fit within that pre-existing scheme—usually as part of the private sector.

Foreign education outposts, however, often do not look or act like the indigenous private sector. They may be new entities in the host country, but they usually have long histories and demonstrated records of success back home. They may also have access to more substantial financial resources than the usual private-sector institutions, and many have built their reputations by offering certain types of degrees at certain levels of quality. And, regardless of the institutional ranking or global reputation, those programs may not always meet the quality-assurance expectations of the receiving nation.

However, cross-border providers may be leery about adapting to local regulation that could actually diminish or significantly change the nature of their programs. Conversely, governments have a responsibility and legal right to assure the quality of programs offered in their country. This then leads to the question at the heart of the cross-border quality debate: To what extent should foreign providers adapt to local expectations?

A few places have tried to single out multinational universities in their quality-assurance procedures by recognizing their home-country procedures as sufficient for hos- country purposes. Dubai, for example, specifically exempts some foreign universities from further quality assurance upon verification that the local program is comparable with that offered on the home campus. Another strategy is to develop a specific quality-assurance procedure for foreign providers, such as Hong Kong’s model for evaluation of nonlocal entities operating within its borders. This establishes a separate process, with standards and quality indicators specifically designed to address concerns about imported programs. Dedicated quality-assurance procedures for foreign outposts may make sense for individual countries, and may give them an advantage in recruiting multinational universities, but they do not solve the quality conundrum that exists on a global scale.

The issue of quality assurance raises questions about the purpose of cross-border higher education. Is it to provide programs relevant to the receiving country, or is it to provide a comparable program to that available on the home campus? At what point might local quality-assurance efforts interfere with comparability? How much difference should be allowed between a branch and home campus program? Who decides—the institution or the quality-assurance agency? Answers will differ based on context and underlying beliefs about education, but these questions demonstrate some of the challenges faced by cross-border providers and the nations they work in.

[This photo is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 535058.]

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