Brenda Gourley: International institutions are united by the common language of quality

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The Independent Online

One of the hottest topics in higher education is quality assurance - and closely allied to this is the question of mobility. Students want to study at an institution that is recognised not only by potential employers but also by other institutions in the country where they live - and in countries where they may live and work at some future time. The EU goals in this respect are clearly stated: the EU wants its domain to exist as one "higher education area" so students and staff can be mobile in that area, carry degrees and even parts of degrees from one place to another and build portfolios of courses which will eventually make up a degree.

This is exceptionally difficult as we currently organise our affairs. Even within the UK, one institution will not necessarily recognise a course studied in another university. It is all that more difficult to recognise courses studied beyond country borders, mostly conducted in another language, to standards not well understood. If one adds to this the fact that, in some regimes at least, institutions are not totally incorruptible, it is easy to see why the EU idea of "one higher education area" is difficult to implement - and why quality assurance is such a big issue.

The Open University is at least partly advantaged in this endeavour. It has a large "validation" arm (OU Validation Services) which is experienced in assessing other institutions, wherever they may be. It is also presently leading on a European project to arrive at a procedure whereby the students studying at the distance education institutions in Europe (there are five) have a means of recognising each other's qualifications. In practice most students are geographically bound by economic, caring responsibilities or work constraints and cannot study in several different places.

For them, open and distance learning institutions represent their only choice and a project that makes their achievements recognised over a large geographical area is enormously encouraging and useful.

It is to be hoped that the distance learning institutions participating in the project will come to some understanding as soon as possible.

The Open University also has a large "credit transfer" operation which concentrates on assessing work students have done elsewhere (in higher education institutions but also elsewhere in this world of corporate universities and private sector providers) and recognising it for credit towards a degree. Many students start their degrees at a conventional institution and then, for one reason or another, their circumstances change and they have to cease full-time study. They are very pleased to be able to transfer their credits and finish their degree with the OU. It means little is wasted.

As higher education becomes more and more important to the success of our economy and the people working in it, it is important we use our resources as wisely as possible - and ensure, in the process, that wherever people study, the system is such that their "credits" are as mobile as possible, and extend their career horizons in the broadest possible way. I am pleased to be able to say the OU is more than playing its part in making this possible.

Brenda Gourley is Vice-Chancellor of the The Open University