Keeping tabs on our offspring overseas

British parent universities are to audit programmes franchised abroad, says Geoffrey Alderman
Next April, the Higher Education Quality Council will begin making formal inquiries into how British universities assure the quality of academic programmes that they franchise to institutions abroad, or that - though designed by overseas institutions - they validate.

Groups of specially trained academic auditors will visit Greece, Spain, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and Singapore and Malaysia. Each group will spend two weeks at six or seven institutions, and will produce a report of about 2,000 words on each institution. These reports will be published. Should any British university, or overseas partner institution, refuse to permit a visit to take place, this fact, too, will be published.

"Overseas collaborative provisions" is big business. The HEQC puts the number of such links at hundreds. These range from degree programmes run jointly by two or more universities - one based in the UK and one abroad - to certificate and diploma programmes offered by overseas private colleges, which a British university has agreed to validate.

Every overseas student registered on a collaborative programme is, formally, a student of the parent British university: the degrees or diplomas they receive will bear its insignia. In addition, many British universities offer the guarantee of a place on one of their own, UK-based undergraduate programmes to students successfully completing "foundation" courses at overseas institutions. These courses, too, will be the subject of overseas audit visits.

But it is not only the sheer expansion of overseas links that has led the HEQC to authorise overseas audits. Stories circulating within the British higher-education system suggest that a minority of British institutions have been giving the sector a bad reputation abroad. One British university, for example, franchised a law degree to a private UK-based law college, which then "refranchised" the degree to the Far East, where the person in charge of it was himself registered for a British law degree.

If this is an extreme and isolated case, there are, unfortunately, others which suggest that overseas students, registered on British collaborative courses, are being shortchanged and left with only a dim perception of the responsibility the British parent institution has for them.

Two HEQC fact-finding missions to Europe and the Far East last summer confirmed that the reputation of UK higher education was being jeopardised by a small number of institutions that were not taking enough care to ensure the quality and standards of their validated and franchised programmes overseas were adequately safeguarded.

A Code of Practice issued by the HEQC in October provides further clues as to the nature of its concerns. In selecting partner institutions overseas, it states, a UK institution "should look for firm evidence of the financial security and probity of the proposed partner". Many private institutions abroad "have as their principal objective the maximisation of profit". Therefore, financial arrangements should "provide safeguards against ... temptations to compromise academic standards".

The code also spells out the dangers of using educational agents as "brokers or facilitators of collaborative links". Such agencies, it says, "are commercial ventures whose interests cannot necessarily be assumed to be the same as those of their UK clients".

The code rightly stresses that overseas students registered under UK collaborative arrangements, and their parental or other sponsors, "expect to receive good value for the considerable sums of money" they invest. In general, every collaborative programme is, or should be, governed by a legally binding agreement. The code spells out the minimum acceptable level of quality control that the UK parent institution should implement.

It is also important, however (though the code is silent on this point), that students and their sponsors have access to the formal agreement, and fully understand the rights it gives them. UK institutions should also examine in detail every relevant piece of publicity put out by an overseas collaborative partner to ensure that the information is accurate and not misleading.

To guarantee the quality of any overseas collaboration effectively requires a significant commitment of resource. The HEQC is not convinced that this commitment is always made. At the same time we are seeing competitor countries deliberately exaggerating anecdotal evidence in order to disparage the quality of British higher education as a whole. The overseas audits that the HEQC is about to conduct will offer a level and depth of reassurance that no other country can offer. This should help to maintain British higher education at the top of the international league table, where it rightfully belongs.

The writer is head of the Academic Development and Quality Assurance Unit at Middlesex University.