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Providing and maintaining confidence in UK Transnational Higher Education into the 2020s

  • 20 October 2020
  • By Rowena Pelik

This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Rowena Pelik, who is now freelance with H.E. Quality Enhancement Services Ltd., after a career in the UK university sector and, most recently, with QAA. You can find Rowena on Twitter @RowenaP11 .

Exploring the elements that contribute to international confidence in UK transnational higher education, I sketched this summary graphic. Confidence underlies success, and international confidence in the quality and standards of UK Transnational higher education (TNE) is central to the continuing success of UK TNE.

With the launch, in October 2020, of the consultation on the proposed new method for the evaluation and enhancement of the quality of UK TNE, I thought it would be useful to unpack the elements to illustrate, in more depth, the more concrete factors that help create confidence. Confidence, not unlike reputation, is something to be maintained, it requires continuing work, it can be elusive, is often hard won and rarely able to be taken for granted. It also requires something beyond the concrete. The less tangible elements include commitments to partnership and mutual benefit, to shared learning and to the changing basis of evolving relationships, respecting and valuing different approaches.

The Government published its International Education Strategy in March 2019. The Strategy highlighted the role of UK TNE and its significant contribution to both ‘soft’ power and education exports. Higher education TNE was identified as contributing over £14bn of the £19.9bn  export income earned. From a strategic perspective, over the last few years I would argue that the two-way nature of soft power and the relationships that generate influence have become more important. TNE offers a powerful way to progress mutually beneficial international agendas.

At the top of the diagram is UK HE’s established reputation and, around the circle, elements contributing to sustaining reputation. These provide the foundations on which reputation and confidence are built.

UK HE’s reputation is not only for consistent academic standards (UK degrees stand the test of time) but also the more strategic commitments to internationalisation and employability. A typical UK degree should be a useful award, fitting its graduates with the knowledge and appreciation to understand their subject in its international context, from multiple perspectives. A valuable award, developing skills and aptitudes and helping to make graduates with UK awards employable. Awards delivering the characteristic academic skills of analysis, critical enquiry, the ability to search out and assess information, together with the wider skills which help to create effective independent and autonomous learners, who are flexible and resourceful, digitally attuned and open to change.

To deliver continuing success UK HE will have to demonstrate that its TNE students graduate with awards which increase their employability and support their ambitions, enabling them to fulfil their potential.

Underlying the consistency and reliability of UK award standards and outcomes are UK-wide quality frameworks and tools. Created, revised and maintained by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) on behalf of UK higher education, the core frameworks and tools embrace qualifications frameworks, subject benchmark statements and the UK Quality Code.

The internal and external quality assurance systems within the UK not only demonstrate how providers and national systems seek to ensure quality and standards but also where they meet European expectaions. UK qualifications and credit frameworks themselves are situated within the wider frameworks of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

The value of these kinds of tools in helping to ensure consistency, shared understanding and stakeholder confidence is illustrated by the wider adoption of similar approaches, especially at a regional level. The ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework was endorsed by the ASEAN economic and education ministers in 2014. It is a common reference framework that enables comparisons of education qualifications across participating ASEAN Member States. The African Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance were launched at the end of 2018. These provide an overarching framework for quality assurance in higher education across Africa.

This growth in supra-national developments – regional frameworks and recognition agreements – promote mobility of students and graduates, facilitate the recognition of qualifications across national borders and create a positive climate for TNE. Developments now reinforced with the adoption of the Global Convention on Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education by UNESCO in November 2019

Higher education in the UK is committed to providing a high-quality student experience – and to seeking to improve, or enhance, that experience.  The UK commitment to enhancement is overt in Enhancement-led Institutional Review in Scotland and Quality Enhancement Review in Wales, as well as in the new proposals for the review of UK TNE, but is common across the sector and in no way confined to the quality cultures in Scotland and Wales. While the ways in which UK providers seek to work in partnership with their students cannot always be translated across borders, there is respect for the belief UK HE displays in the importance of education being student-centred, in listening to the student voice and working with students in shaping learning.

Trust is built on relationships. Each higher education provider involved in TNE will have built up partnerships and relationships over time. The wider agencies and organisations surrounding and supporting UK HE internationally include the British Council, Universities UK International, the QAA and AdvanceHE. Each has its own sets of relationships. QAA, for example, has memoranda of understanding with 14 quality assurance agencies across the globe.

The UK has left the European Union but successive Government ministers have reiterated the UK’s continuing commitment to the EHEA, and thus to the continuing Bologna process. This embraces policy commitments to harmonisation of systems, to the European Standards and Guidelines for quality assurance in the European Higher Education Area (the ESG) and the Lisbon Recognition Convention, as well as towards student-centred learning and enhancement. The UK’s active involvement internationally helps ensure that the UK is part of the continuing evolution of education and educational quality. Within the EHEA this includes involvement with the European Universities Association and with the regional European quality assurance network (the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education – ENQA); more widely with organisations such as the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE) and UNESCO.

The last circle in the ring is the in-country review of UK TNE. This is a vital element, bringing together strands from across the circle. Relationships are built and furthered through in-country review and close liaison with authorities and ministries, with agencies and regulators. Insights are gained into the operating environment in host countries, into the policy drivers and priorities that will shape future developments. In-country review provides opportunities for joint working and shared learning, deepening the appreciation of local approaches and generating fuller understanding of UK systems. Importantly, the new proposals commissioned by UUK and GuildHE for the in-country review of UK TNE provide more systematic coverage, with 25-40% of TNE by student numbers reviewed over the 5-year programme.

Crucial, for me, to continuing success is the increasing emphasis on mutual benefit. For UK higher education TNE has to deliver a financial return, and the UK benefits from its education exports, but were it only about money, few partnerships would be sustained over time. TNE students clearly will look to gain the additional value added by studying for a UK award in their home country or region. They may measure this through the employment opportunities opened up, the study of their subject from a different perspective, how they can gain elements of an internationalised experience from home or, potentially, the opportunity to work directly with students studying the same award in other countries. The returns for host nations will be about how TNE meets their own ambitions. Those ambitions may be to become a regional higher education hub, to help meet a growing local demand for higher education that cannot be met by local providers (this is especially characteristic in many countries where the demographic is dominated by those under 30 years of age) or to support the expansion of local provision through the experience of partnering. Soft power is two-way – the UK may be maintaining and extending its influence and connectivity in the world but so are TNE host nations. Educational links will often sprout, or be kept alive, when other connections are harder, the belief in the transformative power of education enabling links to develop despite political differences, disruptive challenges or market competition.

The TNE landscape continues to change. It is easy to see that Brexit offers new opportunities as well as challenges for UK providers in the European Union or how Covid-19 has shifted attitudes to online delivery and its role in TNE. Environmental concerns and the global pandemic have encouraged reflection on the air miles used to deliver TNE, as have both on international mobility and other ways to achieve internationalised experiences. Approaches to internationalisation and global perspectives are placing greater emphasis on what can be learned from operating in other countries as well as what UK HE offers to them; the UK’s soft power agenda is being matched by those of TNE host nations. Stressing the importance of partnership and mutuality is easier than recognising how questioning the balance between West/North and East/South perspectives will be uncomfortable. Those challenges will shape many future debates around TNE. However, confidence and respect will remain key.

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