AUSTRALIA: International quality assurance

As universities around the world internationalise their curricula and their research links, or offer courses abroad or enrol foreign students, these activities should be subject to internal quality assurance. By the same token, external quality assurance agencies must be able to assess the nature and effect of these internal processes. This is the "QA of internationalisation".

A similar phrase with a different meaning is "internationalisation of QA". But there is a widespread paradox in contemporary quality assurance: almost all quality agencies are set up by national governments, or other national groups or bodies, so legally they have only national jurisdiction and authority, or even sub-national as at the state level for example.

Yet globalisation and the internationalisation of higher education mean that increasingly these national bodies must be international in their ability, outlook and activities. This raises the question of how quality assurance agencies might operate internationally. Some examples include:

* An agency follows its institutions' courses abroad by sending review panels overseas or checking on them electronically or by some other means; or by contracting another body such as a QA agency to carry out the check - which is something Australia's quality assurance agency could do.
* An agency takes responsibility for everything that happens in its area and checks educational imports at the border as happens in Hong Kong where foreign courses must be registered.
* An agency recognises the activities carried out and decisions reached by another agency abroad.
* One or more global certifying agencies could check and certify the quality of QA agencies themselves. There are also global accrediting agencies that could accredit any institution, perhaps by checking the results of the audits carried out by the relevant national agency.
* Nationally based QA agencies could check and accredit institutions anywhere, such as the US professional Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), and the US regional accreditor, the Middle States Commission for Higher Education (MSCHE).

In 1995, the Global Alliance for Transnational Education or GATE drafted a code of practice to which higher education institutions should adhere in their transnational activities. The alliance also set up a process for certifying institutional adherence to these principles which were widely used and have informed other such sets of principles. Unfortunately, the organisation collapsed before much use could be made of the certification service.

Many enquiries to GATE came from institutions wanting, not a review of their transnational education but a broad-scope review of their academic quality and standards. There is now room for an international agency to offer such a service.

It would be of great value to institutions that wanted to operate on the international scene but which were in countries where there was no QA agency or the agency did not have a high international reputation.

For several years, the European Universities Association has been offering an audit service to its members on a cost-recovery basis. This has proved popular as universities choose the scope of the audit to best suit their needs, and the audit becomes a management consultancy carried out by people who have been part of academic management.

Although critics have pointed to a claimed 'conservative' approach by these audits - possibly due to the panels comprising former rectors - its longevity testifies to its value.

The Programme for Institutional Management in Higher Education, or IMHE, was developed by the OECD and now offers, with the EUA and the Academic Co-operation Association, an audit of an institution's processes to achieve its objectives in internationalisation, and what progress it is making.

In the US, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, one of six regional accreditors, has accredited many institutions around the world as if they were American. Similarly in the professional area, the US AACSB (business) and ABET (engineering) as well as the European EQUIS (business) have accredited many business and engineering faculties across the globe.

Regardless of whether there is one or more international quality assurance agencies, there will continue to be many that have national or sub-national scope. For the mobility of students, the recognition of graduates and the employability of professionals, it is necessary their QA activities are recognised outside their respective areas.

Many agencies are working, bilaterally and multilaterally, on ways they can recognise each other's activates. Networks such as the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE) and the Asia-Pacific Quality Network (APQN) have working groups to facilitate this.

But a great many thorny questions remain. For example, can an agency that reviews at programme level and one that reviews at institution level meaningfully recognise each other's activities? Autonomous institutions are not bound to give credit to a student for work done at another institution that answers to the same accreditor; so even if two agencies accept the other's activities as valid and rigorous, will it have any effect on what their respective institutions will accept?

The global mobility of professionals has given a fillip to professional accrediting associations whose members have demanded collaboration between them to achieve international recognition of their professional qualifications.

The most-cited development is the 'Washington Accord' between institutions of professional engineers in 10 countries agreeing that the criteria, policies and procedures used by the signatories in accrediting engineering academic programmes are comparable, and that the accreditation decisions rendered by one signatory are acceptable to the others. This gives engineering graduates a high level of mobility.

Despite wide attention to the accord, it has not spawned many copies (although some work is being done in architecture and in nurse anaesthesia). This may be because the engineering associations 'belong to' their members, although people do not have to be a member to be allowed legally to call themselves 'engineer'. Professions more tightly controlled by law or statute are finding the mutual recognition task more difficult.

The INQAAHE has drafted a set of guidelines of good practice that have been endorsed by its 200-strong membership. If an agency is aligned with the code of practice, other agencies can have greater confidence in recognising its decisions.

*David Woodhouse is Executive Director of the Australian Universities Quality Agency