Towards quality transnational education

In a recent article, Jane Knight noted the definitional and qualitative issues with joint and double degrees and called for “a rigorous debate on the vexing questions of accreditation, recognition and ‘legitimacy’ of the qualifications”.

In addition, a special issue of EAIE Forum magazine on Transnational Education (TNE) presented several viewpoints about the complexities, challenges, approaches and definitions of transnational education.

One of the co-authors asked, in A Question of Quality in Transnational Education, if traditional definitions, expectations and models of quality assurance will be able to respond to the expanding scale and increasing complexity of TNE activities?

We assert that the quality assurance mechanisms have not kept pace with the changes in the landscape of cross-border education activities. There is a need for a collaborative effort among quality assurance bodies, professional associations and higher education institutions to address issues of quality in TNE and develop a commonly accepted framework that establishes quality standards and maximises the potential of TNE.

Complexity and diversity of quality assurance

TNE is offered in a range of models, including branch campuses, licensed foreign degree programmes provided by local institutions, articulation agreements, distance learning degrees and online degrees.

The variety of models is reflective of diverse contexts of source and destination countries, where demand from the emerging segment of ‘glocal’ students - who have aspirations to gain a global education experience, but want to remain in their local region/country - is creating new opportunities for institutions.

The landscape of TNE gets further complicated with the emergence of new distance learning technologies, such as MOOCs, that are changing teaching and learning methods and are not easily incorporated into traditional processes and definitions of quality assurance in higher education.

For example, a recent strategic planning document from MIT forecasts a future where education will be unbundled and degrees will be disaggregated ‘into smaller credential units such as course credentials, sequence credentials and even badges’ with the possibility that ‘the credentialing agency may be different from the institution that offers the course’.

This responsiveness to demand has also led to a wide variation in quality among these programmes and models. To varying degrees, these TNE initiatives appear to operate with little regulation or oversight from governments or quality assurance entities in the participating students’ country or in the provider institutions’ home country.

Quality in higher education is not only difficult to measure (as we know from wide-ranging debates about rankings), but also involves diverse approaches to quality assurance.

It takes many forms, varying from country to country. For example, terms such as accreditation, recognition and the authority to grant diplomas or degrees can have different meanings and vary by country. Likewise, definitions and processes can differ widely from country to country.

In the context of TNE, quality issues can be addressed by authorities in the country where the provider institution is located and-or in the country where student participants receive TNE programmes. Unfortunately, many of the countries where the demand for TNE is high, such as Pakistan, Nigeria and India, do not have strong oversight or clearly established regulations to assure quality. This poses risks to students as well as to institutional providers.

In Europe and more broadly there are efforts to establish common standards and processes that are recognised beyond national borders. For example, ENQA (European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education) has been granted funding from Erasmus Mundus to “address the accreditation and quality assurance of the programmes delivered outside of their countries”.

Likewise, in the US, the CHEA International Quality Group (CIQG) is attempting “to address issues and challenges focused on quality and quality assurance in an international setting”.

While progress is being made it does not seem to be adequate, given the international scope and rapid growth of TNE. Here are our recommendations to improve global capacity to assure quality in cross-border education:
  • • Undertake substantial research on the models and scope:
    We don’t have systematic, comparative and reliable data sources that provide a deep understanding of the existing practices and trends. The current situation is complicated, uncertain and confusing for providers and governments. Funding for data collection and comparative research is an urgent need that should be considered a high priority by institutions, ministries and government at all levels.

  • • Develop standards that recognise the nature of TNE:
    There is always appropriate concern about unregulated markets in education because individuals and institutions can be vulnerable to scams, ‘diploma mills’ and the like. Still, we should not rush to establish standards and quality criteria when we do not yet fully understand emerging learning technologies and programme innovations in TNE.

    It makes more sense to concentrate on due diligence related to inputs, such as home country accreditation, information and references obtained from official government sources in the country where the provider is located.

  • • Strengthen collaboration among groups and-or organisations with a common purpose:
    Efforts are ongoing to encourage and develop mechanisms and agreements that enable international collaboration among quality assurance agencies worldwide. The issues raised here regarding TNE should only give additional impetus to an ongoing collaboration about educational quality.

  • • Encourage participation from countries with inadequate quality assurance:
    We can give special attention to collaboration with individuals, groups or institutions from countries that lack adequate quality assurance capacity to assist them in constructing more robust systems to monitor quality and protect individuals from low quality or ineffective TNE.

  • • Institutional support to share data and practices:
    The establishment of some internationally recognised standards for transnational education that reflect the realities of international operations is an urgent and crucial objective.
One action that can be taken by TNE providers is to share useful data and information about operations with their institution and with educational authorities nationally and internationally. This will advance research that can help inform quality assurance initiatives.

The pattern of growth in transnational education is rife with complexity and brimming with innovation. The quality assurance mechanisms of cross border educational activities are lagging behind. This has implications for all stakeholders, including students, institutions and policymakers.

To eventually establish an improved quality assurance regime for transnational education that is broadly accepted as legitimate, a concerted, proactive and collaborative effort is required to better understand the nature, scope and scale of transnational education.

Dr Rahul Choudaha is the co-founder and CEO at DrEducation and He researches, speaks, writes, and consults on international student trends and its implications for institutional strategies and student success. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver. He is reachable at and @DrEducationBlog.

Richard J Edelstein is a research associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley and managing director of Global University Concepts, a higher education consultancy. Email: