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Making QA collaborative for TNE

Rod Bristow

Fabrizio Trifiro

Manager (International)
Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

Quality assurance is one of the key pillars of effective higher education delivery, which protects the student and university interest. Far from disappearing when operating at distance, the need for quality assurance can be even greater. Fabrizio Trifiro, Manager International at the QAA, outlines the ways that the QAA is working with its counterparts around the world to improve dialogue and cooperation to ensure that the global reputation of UK higher education, as well as its quality and standards, are upheld irrespective of where a student may be based.

QAA's approach to TNE

Transnational Education (TNE) is an integral and expanding part of UK higher education provision. Over 80% of UK universities are engaged in some form of TNE, either through distance learning, partnerships, or branch campus arrangements. Significantly this provision is delivered across the continents, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1:

 Fabrizio Blog Map

TNE now also represents the main area of growth in UK higher education in terms of student numbers, as illustrated by figure 2 below. The latest HESA data show that while the total number of students studying on higher education programmes in the UK (2,226,000) has declined by c 9% over the past 4 years, and the number of international students studying in the UK has remained roughly constant (450,000), the number of students studying on higher education programmes outside of the UK has witnessed more than a 30% increase over the same period. TNE numbers now exceed the number of international students in the UK by almost 50%. 

Figure 2 

In order to respond to this growing and expanding cross-border provision, QAA has looked at processes to ensure that the oversight of UK TNE remains effective and efficient, providing assurance and confidence to international students and stakeholders. Two ways in which we have tried to do so is by adopting a country-based approach and by strengthening cooperation with host countries quality assurance agencies.

QAA has traditionally complemented institutional reviews in the UK with a dedicated in-country TNE review process. This is conducted on a country-by-country basis to maximise efficiency. Rather than sending different review teams to different parts of the world, or in the same country, several times a year, each year or so we select for review a country or region with significant UK TNE or of strategic importance for UK higher education. Over the recent years we have for example reviewed UK TNE in India (2009)Malaysia (2010)Singapore (2011)China (2012)United Arab Emirates (2013)the Caribbean (2014) and Greece and Cyprus (2015).TNE reviews are carried out, as for all other QAA review processes, by peer-reviewers, and include visits to a sample of delivery sites. In addition to being more cost-effective this country-based approach also allows QAA to get an in-depth understanding of the specific features and challenges involved in operating in particular countries, since different countries have different policies and systems for higher education and TNE.

This country based approach also allows QAA to explore systematic ways in which to cooperate with host countries quality assurance agencies. When reviewing TNE, QAA regularly seeks to liaise with the local regulatory authorities and QA agencies in order to share information. We also see whether there is any scope for cooperation and coordination of review activity and streamlining of processes. This is a high priority for QAA, and we are currently taking this forward at different levels and in different ways. I'd like here to outline some of QAA's current initiatives aimed at enhancing cross-border inter-agency cooperation in the quality assurance of TNE.

Strengthening inter-agency cooperation

QAA has, over the years, developed strategic partnerships with agencies in key countries for UK HE. These include the main UK TNE host countries of China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and the emirate of Dubai, as well as other strategic countries such as Australia and Ireland. We regularly engage with our counterpart agencies in these countries with a view to enhancing our reciprocal understanding of each other's HE and QA systems, and explore ways in which we can cooperate in concrete projects.

In addition to bilateral strategic engagement, QAA plays a proactive role in international networks such as the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA)the International Network of Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE)the Asia-Pacific Quality Network (APQN) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation International Quality Group (CHEA-IQG).

We have also played a driving role in establishing an informal grouping of agencies in main sending and receiving countries of TNE. The Quality Beyond Borders Group (QBBG) is led by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority of Dubai and is dedicated at facilitating discussions of TNE-related issues, sharing information about cross-border provision and its quality assurance, and finding ways to cooperate in the oversight of cross-border HE provision. QAA will also contribute to the Cross-Border Quality Assurance Network (CBQAN), recently launched under the Asia-Europe Meetings of Ministries of Education and led by our partner in China, the China Academic Degrees and Graduate Education Development Center (CDGDC).

QAA has led a number of high-profile international projects aimed at discussing and facilitating cross-border cooperation amongst quality assurance agencies in the context of the current internationalization of higher education. In particular, we have led the development of the Toolkit for quality assurance agencies 'Cooperation in Cross-Border Higher Education', as part of the ENQA managed international project 'Quality Assurance of Cross-Border Higher Education' (QACHE). The toolkit, which is discussed in another HEGlobal commentary, 'The QACHE Toolkit', highlighted the importance of building trust between agencies, offering practical advice to agencies about things they might consider doing to strengthen inter-agency cooperation.

The QACHE toolkit forms the start of a bigger conversation about working between agencies, outlined in 'Collaborating for the future of TNE.' To follow up some of the issues related to the implementation of the QACHE Toolkit, QAA proposed a study and was awarded funding from INQAAHE to look at the challenges and limits posed to agencies wishing to engage in cross-border cooperation by the broader national and regulatory frameworks in which they operate. The findings highlight a number of strategic recommendations directed at quality assurance agencies wishing to implement the advice of the QACHE Toolkit. These include the need to involve in the conversation around the quality assurance of TNE and inter-agency cooperation, all key stakeholders, in particular government, cross-border providers, and TNE students.

Strategic Recommendations 

In the spirit of the QACHE Toolkit and the findings of the INQAAHE funded study, and in line with its consolidated international engagement strategy, QAA is currently considering ways to progress further its cooperation with international partners. This is with a view to delivering, in effective and efficient ways, its UK-wide mandate to maintain, enhance, and promote the international reputation of UK HE. These include:

  • cooperating with sector bodies such as the British Council, and the UK HE International Unit - including through their joint HE Global initiative - in activities aimed at gaining and disseminating a better understanding of UK TNE and overseas operating environments;
  • exploring with partner agencies overseas ways that we might draw on each other's collected information and quality assurance decisions, avoiding duplication of regulatory efforts;
  • engaging in projects with partner agencies overseas aimed at developing a shared understanding of specific aspects of TNE provision and its quality assurance, such as articulation arrangements and the equivalency of the students experience;
  • strengthening cooperation in the quality assurance of TNE in China, a major host of UK TNE programmes.

UK HE TNE looks set to expand further, and through our international work, QAA will continue to support the global reputation of UK higher education, assuring its quality and standards no matter where the student is located.