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Collaborating for the future of TNE

Rod Bristow

Fabrizio Trifiro

Manager (International)
Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

Following the launch of the QACHE Toolkit 'Cooperation in Cross-Border Higher Education', which we reported on in November last year, the final report of the Erasmus Mundus funded project Quality Assurance of Cross border Higher Education  (QACHE) has now been published.

Fabrizio Trifiro' from the UK's Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) provides an overview of the key findings and outcomes of the project, including policy recommendations to national and European policy makers.

The QACHE project is an Erasmus Mundus funded project aimed at enhancing the European and international practice of quality assuring cross-border higher education (CBHE), or what we would normally refer to as transnational education (TNE) in the UK.

The project, led by ENQA , was carried out by a consortium which included quality assurance agencies from four European provider countries with different experience in quality assuring TNE, a main provider country outside Europe (Australia) and the two main host regions of European cross-border education (the Gulf and Asia-Pacific regions). These included, in addition to ENQA:

  • the Asia-Pacific Quality Network (APQN),
  • the Arab Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ANQAHE);
  • the National Agency for Quality Assessment and Accreditation of Spain (ANECA),
  • the French High Council for the Evaluation of Research and Higher Education (HCERES),
  • the German Accreditation Council (GAC)
  • the UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), and
  • the Australian Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).

The two year project has now come to its conclusion, and the final report giving a detailed account of its activities, findings and outcomes was published in April 2016.

QACHE's three phases:

On the basis of preliminary literature review and information gathered informally from various stakeholders, the project consortium identified at the start of the project two specific needs which it sought to address as priority areas of action:

  • improve agencies (and other stakeholders') understanding of the different approaches to quality assure CBHE adopted in different countries
  • enhance cross-border cooperation between agencies in sending and receiving countries to facilitate the quality assurance of CBHE

The project sought to address these needs through a series of activities aimed at promoting mutual understanding, building trust, and enhancing cooperation between agencies in sending and receiving countries of CBHE. These activities were structured in three phases.

The first phase was dedicated to collect information on approaches used to quality assure CBHE by both sending and receiving countries' agencies, with a particular focus on their views about key challenges and good practice. To meet this aim, the membership of the three regional networks participating in the project (ENQAAPQNANQAHE) were surveyed, and the five national agencies (ANECAGACHCERESQAATEQSA)produced detailed country reports. A survey was also sent to a sample of higher education providers in the four CBHE provider countries represented in the project: France, Germany, Spain and the UK.

The second phase was dedicated to discussing the outcomes of the surveys and the country reports, and to inform the third phase of the project. Discussion took place at three regional forums with key experts and stakeholders in: Europe, hosted by BPP University in London and co-organised by QAA; the Gulf, hosted and co-organised by ANQAHE in Bahrain; and Asia-Pacific, hosted by the Macau Gabinete de Apoio ao Ensino Superior, GAES, and co-organised by APQN.

The third phase was dedicated to developing the deliverables of the project. The main deliverable consists in the Toolkit Cooperation in Cross-Border Higher Education, whichprovides practical guidance to quality assurance agencies, and their networks, on things they might consider doing to enhance cooperation in the quality assurance of CBHE. Discussion about the toolkit is available in the HEGlobal blogs at 'The QACHE toolkit'.

Building on the findings of the project, a number of recommendations to policymakers have been issued to help the development of CBHE frameworks in national contexts and at the European level. Also, building on a study QAA has recently undertaken with INQAAHE funding, the QACHE project has developed a pilot survey which could eventually be administered to quality assurance agencies with a view to gaining a better understanding of the challenges and limits that national and regional contexts may pose to cooperating across-borders in the spirit of the Toolkit.


Recommendations to policymakers

The QACHE project brought to the fore that both regulation of CBHE (in-bound or out-bound) and detailed information about CBHE is rather patchy and often lacking across Europe (as well as the other regions involved in the project). Recognising that governments have a key role to play in supporting the development of adequate frameworks and systems to support the delivery and quality of inbound or outbound CBHE, the QACHE final report issues a series of recommendations to national governments and to European level policy makers.

National governments are urged to:

  • support higher education institutions in fully harnessing the opportunities and benefits associated with CBHE, safeguarding its quality
  • support QA agencies in developing the required national capacities for the quality assurance of CBHE and inter-agency cooperation
  • facilitate the development of regular and reliable data collection systems for inbound and outbound CBHE at the national level
  • engage with QA agencies in order to identify any required reforms to facilitate the quality assurance of CBHE and cross-border cooperation in quality assurance
  • develop, together with all relevant stakeholders, clear policy frameworks for the quality assurance of CBHE.

Policy makers at the European level are similarly urged to:

  • support national efforts to develop adequate data collection and quality assurance frameworks for CBHE
  • support regional policy dialogue initiatives to increase reciprocal understanding of different national frameworks and approaches amongst all key stakeholders and build mutual trust
  • facilitate the development of favourable policies for cross-border cooperation in the quality assurance of CBHE.


Next steps: assessing the limits to cross-border cooperation

The QACHE Toolkit offers practical guidance on the things that quality assurance agencies might consider doing to enhance cooperation, focusing on information sharing, joint-review activity, and recognition of other agencies' quality assurance decisions. It does not offer advice on what approach to adopt to quality assure CBHE, acknowledging and respecting the differences and autonomy of different agencies and national systems. Similarly, the advice it offers is not prescriptive, acknowledging that the different regulatory contexts and national systems within which each agency operates may pose limits to the extent to which they might be able to cooperate with other agencies.

Understanding these limits is key to developing viable strategies for progressing cross-border cooperation in the quality assurance of CBHE. As a QACHE follow-up project, QAA obtained funding from the International Networks of Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE) to study the challenges and limits that agencies may be facing when seeking to cooperate internationally. The study relied on a survey administered to the QAA's strategic partners in key sending and receiving countries of TNE. The study has now concluded, and the findings will be reported on HEGlobal in due course.

The QACHE project, through QAA, was able to build on this short study to develop a pilot survey. In due time, this might be administered to a broader range of quality assurance agencies to assess the extent to which they have been able to implement the advice of the Toolkit. The survey, which is included in the final report, will help to establish a better understanding of the challenges and obstacles that quality assurance agencies encounter when trying to cooperate across borders, as well as opportunities and successful experiences. This understanding will be key to implementing realistic and effective strategies for developing inter-agency cooperation, which take into account different national operating environments, and ultimately enhancing the efficacy and efficiency of cross-border quality assurance of CBHE.