Ads can mislead foreign students

Geoffrey Alderman believes that British colleges could do more to make sure customers overseas get what they pay for
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The Independent Online
Do students living abroad who enrol on foreign-based British degree programmes get value for money? For most, the investment is worth every penny. But for a minority, the experience can turn sour.

Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC) auditors have recently criticised Southampton Institute of Higher Education for giving the impression in its overseas advertising that it has university status. Southampton Institute is also rebuked for operating, in relation to its overseas links, quality assurance procedures that "differ markedly" from those used for its UK-based programmes.

Meanwhile, it is expected that a forthcoming audit report relating to a second institute of higher education will draw attention to the way in which the quality assurance of its collaborative provision has also been permitted to operate in isolation from the procedures used for UK- based courses.

The academic audits of Southampton and Swansea institutes were conducted in the UK. But in May, teams of auditors were dispatched to Greece, Spain, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore to conduct the first-ever overseas audit visits. Their reports are now with the HEQC.

In October, the Council of Validating Universities and Higher Education International is planning a seminar on overseas collaborations, at which feedback is promised on the findings of these visits.

All too often, collaborative links are promoted by a university's marketing arm rather than an academic department.

Unless an institution's quality assurance arrangements are robust and all-embracing, overseas programmes, so established, will inevitably develop outside the academic framework of the institution, and beyond its mechanisms of academic accountability.

The fee-paying students on these programmes may be promised an educational experience equivalent to that offered to UK-based students. But such a promise is meaningless if a two-tier quality-assurance system is in operation.

The control of advertising material also needs careful planning. Many British universities and colleges employ overseas agents to recruit students on to their programmes.

Here, the contract needs to spell out the agent's obligation not to misrepresent the programmes, nor to misrepresent the nature and status of theinstitution itself.

Colleges also need to recognise their own duty to be completely honest about themselves, the programme and its status: whether, for example, a particular qualification will be recognised by the government of the student's own country.

But it is the quality of the student experience that is paramount in any overseas venture.

Overseas students enrolled on UK programmes are, in some, and possibly all, respects, students of the UK institutions whose programmes they are following. In general, if they are following distance-learning or franchised programmes, or programmes run jointly with an overseas partner, they will be entitled to all the rights and privileges enjoyed by UK students, and they need to be told what these are. If the UK institution has a students' charter, they will need to be provided with copies of it.

The quality of teaching and learning is scarcely less important. Where the UK institution authorises the employment of locally-based teachers, their selection, training and monitoring needs to be comparable with the procedures used back home.

Locally-recruited teachers need to be carefully inducted into the standards that are expected, and need to be provided with feedback on students' views of their teaching.

Overseas collaborations can result in stimulating partnerships; if they are also financially rewarding, so much the better. But it is the quality of the collaborative programme that must remain paramount, not the maximisation of profit.

Geoffrey Alderman is head of the academic development and quality assurance unit at Middlesex University.

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