Towards quality ‘ranking’ for transnational education

With explosive growth in transnational education – overseas university degrees delivered to students in their home country – the need for common standards and constant monitoring of transnational degrees has become critical to maintain quality.

“Without this, the full benefits and potential impact of transnational education cannot be judged,” said Rebecca Hughes, director of education at the British Council.

Monitoring transnational education, or TNE, and collecting data to draw up a draft framework for defining TNE could eventually lead to a benchmarking or ranking of degrees delivered outside the country of origin in different settings that include branch campuses, accredited or franchised courses, and independent joint institutions, the British Council’s Going Global conference in London heard this week.

Currently ranking systems only consider the quality of national institutions operating within their own country.

Jo Beall, director education and society at the British Council said TNE “faces the danger of becoming a vehicle for making money and getting students into particular countries. But we believe it has to be of high quality.”

She said she wanted to see more countries contributing to a draft framework for defining TNE and collecting data on it so that a larger database can be built. Currently there are no international standards for defining or monitoring TNE so the governments, agencies and universities can keep an eye on student numbers, types of courses and quality assurance arrangements.

“If we don’t have benchmarking in place that all partners can sign up to, we could have an externally imposed ranking system imposed on us,” said Beall. “We want to determine (ourselves) what’s best.”

The proliferation of different types of TNE is making it difficult for host countries, as well as countries where the degrees originate, to compare programmes and for students abroad to judge their quality, said an expert panel at the British Council’s Going Global conference in London on 1 June.

“With anything that grows very quickly there is always potential for many low-quality providers to slip under the counter,” John McNamara, director of research at McNamara Economic Research, Ireland, told University World News.

“Quality issues must be considered not just to ensure minimum standards are maintained but also [to ensure] relevance” to the host country, said McNamara, who is co-author together with Jane Knight, adjunct professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, of the report Transnational Education Data Collection Systems: Awareness, analysis, action released at the conference by the British Council and the German Academic Exchange Service known by its German acronym DAAD.

“We need much more information and data because otherwise you just cannot compare,” said DAAD secretary general Dorothea Rüland. “We have a huge responsibility to our students,” she added.

The research into TNE in 10 host countries conducted by the British Council and DAAD found there is no reliable information on student numbers, types of programmes and quality assurance arrangements, and data is hard to collate because different countries are at different stages in developing TNE and have different approaches to monitoring it.

The report said TNE can be categorised as collaborative and independent (foreign) provision. Twinning programmes, joint-multiple degrees, co-founded universities, and locally supported distance education projects fall under collaborative provision; while branch campuses, franchise universities and distance education come under independent provision.

Speakers and delegates agreed that while there would be clear advantages in collecting more detailed TNE data, stakeholders in many countries would need to have a clear explanation as to why the data was needed and what the benefits would be, to ensure their cooperation.

The United Kingdom is one of the leading providers of TNE around the world, with approximately 360,000 students actively enrolled in programmes involving 80% of UK universities. Germany is a leader in setting up new independent institutions abroad through bilateral cooperation with the host country.