Improving the quality of international higher education

International education, in all its forms, has tremendous socially progressive potential as a means to widen access to quality education and to meet skills and training needs at global level, as well as to foster a sense of global citizenship critical for constructive relationships between cultures and nations.

There are, however, important challenges to the fuller realisation of this progressive potential, which relate to a range of quality assurance aspects.

In order to clearly identify these challenges, and thus facilitate the development of quality assurance and recognition solutions capable of supporting the growth of quality international education, it is helpful to distinguish between the quality assurance of internationalised practices and activities and the internationalisation of quality assurance practices and activities.

Quality assurance of internationalisation

The quality assurance of internationalisation can refer to two distinct aspects, depending on the dimension of internationalisation we are referring to. Referring to the distinction, famously one made by Jane Knight, we can talk about the quality assurance of ‘internationalisation at home’ and ‘internationalisation abroad’.

‘Internationalisation at home’ is commonly associated with the dynamics affecting home campus or national provision, such as the internationalisation of the student body through international student mobility or the internationalisation of the curriculum to ensure its relevance to an internationalised student body and our global societies.

Quality assurance aspects associated with ‘internationalisation at home’ have to do, for example, with introducing reference points, standards or guidelines, setting out best practice and expectations around issues such as safeguarding the experience and interests of international students, supporting their experience throughout their student journey from recruitment to graduation, or best pedagogical practice for international classrooms or for internationalising the experience of every student.

‘Internationalisation abroad’ refers to programme and institutional mobility, also commonly known as transnational education (TNE), which is generally defined as: “All types of higher education study programmes, or sets of courses of study, or educational services (including those of distance education) in which the learners are located in a country different from the one where the awarding institution is based.”

In this case we are talking about quality assurance bodies having to respond to the growing export (or import) of education provision, developing quality assurance systems and reference points that allow them to provide reassurance that awarding institutions are safeguarding the quality and standards of their provision even when offered overseas, either in-person or through distance learning.

This type of internationalisation can pose different quality assurance and regulatory challenges depending on whether we are looking at it from the standpoint of a sending or a hosting location.

However, without doubt, the most pressing issue for the quality assurance of TNE, either in-bound or out-bound, relates to the expectation that TNE provision should be comparable to the provision offered at the home campus of the TNE awarding institution.

In this context, it is important to pin down what precisely it is that needs to be comparable, as different understandings might lead to unnecessary and unhelpful recognition issues.

In particular, it is critical to distinguish between the comparability of learning outcomes and the comparability of the learning experience.

While the comparability of learning outcomes should be regarded as an uncompromisable expectation, in the sense that providers and quality assurance bodies should be able to reassure stakeholders that standards of learning are upheld regardless of the mode or location of study, when it comes to the learning experience a strict comparability expectation is often not possible, given the different cultural contexts and models of delivery, and is also unnecessary.

The student experience across different TNE operations can indeed be rather different, but this variance does not have to be a negative thing in itself as long as student expectations are transparently managed and, importantly, as long as students are adequately supported in achieving the expected learning outcomes.

Any expectation regarding the comparability of the student experience going beyond and above this (ie safeguarding learning standards and managing learners’ expectations) might lead to a misperception that TNE is inherently of a lower standard*.

Another significant challenge, but also an opportunity, applying to both in-bound and out-bound TNE, is the importance of cooperation in quality assurance between sending and receiving locations of TNE.

Closer cross-border cooperation can be crucial in helping to address quality assurance gaps and hence to enhance the confidence that can be placed internationally in TNE, as well as in helping to address unnecessary quality assurance or regulatory overlaps, which might hinder the growth of quality TNE through unnecessary regulatory burden.

Internationalisation of quality assurance

The internationalisation of quality assurance practices and activities can also refer to two distinct aspects.

On the one hand, it can refer to the introduction of an international dimension into a national quality assurance system, or into the operations of a quality assurance or accreditation agency. Examples of this sort of internationalisation can be including international experts in peer-review panels so as to introduce an international perspective to the activities of a quality assurance body, or incorporating international standards into an agency’s practice.

The widespread adoption of video-conferencing technologies to support quality assurance visits, which took place in response to the global pandemic, can offer a way to overcome the key challenge associated with the cost of involving international reviewers.

The development of regional quality assurance guidelines and reference points, such as the European Standards and Guidelines or the ASEAN Quality Assurance Framework, can support the harmonisation of higher education systems and thus internationalisation. However, these frameworks must be flexible enough to be able to accommodate diversity and innovation in quality assurance and higher education.

On the other hand, the internationalisation of quality assurance can refer to a different aspect, that is, offering quality assurance services internationally in countries other than the one in which a quality assurance agency or accreditation body is based. This is a common and growing phenomenon, especially for agencies offering accreditation and quality assurance services on a commercial basis.

Professional bodies’ international accreditation services are a common and well understood example in this context, but we are also seeing a growing number of national quality assurance or accreditation bodies, initially established to offer their services to national education providers, now exporting their quality assurance activity across national borders.

The international offering of quality assurance services, especially when offered on a commercial or voluntary basis, poses its own issues and challenges.

Notably, it is important to make sure that both providers signing up to the international service and international stakeholders clearly understand the status that the international quality assurance service confers on the education providers taking part in the process. For example, does the quality assurance oversight offered by the international quality assurance body confer any recognised status or benefit either in the country where the provider is based or where the quality assurance body is based?

The quality assurance of international education providers also poses the question of the extent to which international quality assurance bodies can adequately understand and assess how education providers operating in different languages, or education systems, maintain a robust oversight on quality and standards.

Towards best practice

Quality assurance in an internationalised context can refer to different, although intertwined, aspects of internationalisation, which are associated with specific challenges, issues, dynamics and opportunities.

It is helpful to be aware of these differences, not only to avoid possible misunderstandings (bearing in mind that it is far too easy for these to occur in an increasingly varied and complex international education and quality assurance landscape), but also and specifically to inform the development of fit-for-purpose quality assurance strategies and practices capable of fostering the growth of quality international education.

Summing up in a schematic way, it is possible to distinguish the different dimensions of internationalisation in quality assurance along the following four lines, which are not mutually exclusive and can and do indeed overlap:

• Quality assurance of ‘internationalisation at home’: referring to the quality assurance aspects related to the internationalisation of home-based education providers and provision.

• Quality assurance of ‘internationalisation abroad’: referring to the quality assurance aspects related to education provision offered internationally.

• Internationalisation of quality assurance practices: referring to the integration of an international dimension into the practices and frameworks of quality assurance bodies.

• Internationalisation of quality assurance services: referring to the international offer of quality assurance services beyond national borders.

My agency, Ecctis, has developed its TNE Quality Benchmark scheme to address some of these challenges and opportunities. It provides an external quality review of transnational education provision against international standards of good practice, carried out by international reviewers and overseen by an international advisory board, while fostering cross-border cooperation with key stakeholders in sending and receiving locations.

By adopting a learning-outcomes based approach to comparability, it allows for diversity in the learning experiences of TNE students vis-à-vis that of home campus students as long as it can be demonstrated that TNE students are sufficiently supported in achieving the learning outcomes expected for their programmes of study and that their expectations about their TNE learning experience and learning environment are clearly managed from the start (TNE International Quality Benchmarks, Standard 3, Indicator 9) . It also aims to act as a platform for fostering cross-border cooperation with key stakeholders in sending and receiving locations, to help addressing quality assurance and regulatory gaps and overlaps.

Cross-border dialogue and cooperation are indeed key to identify and understand the complex gamut of issues emerging from the intersection of quality assurance and processes of internationalisation in higher education and to find viable solutions to foster inclusive, peaceful and sustainable global civil societies through international education.

Fabrizio Trifiró is head of Quality Benchmark Services at Ecctis, the agency that manages the national qualifications recognition function on behalf of the United Kingdom government. At Ecctis he oversees services aimed at supporting international understanding and recognition of international qualifications. He has led the development and oversees the implementation of the Transnational Education Quality Benchmark scheme aimed at improving the international recognition ecosystem for TNE provision. Trifiró sits on the board of directors of the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education and is a reviewer for a number of international quality assurance bodies. He is chief advisor to the International Association of Education Hubs, having played a key role in its establishment.

*Trifiro, F (2021): “How a misplaced attention to the student experience can limit the progressive impact of TNE”, in
Importing Transnational Education, Tsiligiris V, Lawton W, Hill, C (eds), Palgrave Macmillan.