Internationalizing Quality Assurance
January 27, 2000
Marriott Wardman Park Hotel
The seminar was opened by Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). She welcomed the group and expressed her appreciation that participants from many countries were able to be present. She talked about the role of CHEA in quality assurance in the United States and its relationship to both higher education institutions and national, regional, and specialized accreditation organizations. She noted that the seminar was being held in response to requests from CHEA members and higher education leaders outside the United States who sought more information about, and discussion of, issues and concerns regarding quality assurance internationally. The aims of the seminar included:
- the exchange of information about quality assurance practices and challenges in different parts of the world;
- discussion of quality standards in different areas; and
- exploring options for cooperation across national boundaries, institutional responsibilities for quality assurance, and issues related to student mobility.
CHEA seeks to foster cooperation and the exchange of ideas and information about quality assurance nationally and internationally. Participants were urged to think globally, rather than in terms of a particular institution, organization, or country.
The first topic of discussion was quality standards. Questions include the following:
- How can high quality be assured?
- What strategies are needed to protect at least minimum quality?
- How can information about quality be shared most effectively?
- How might information technology help the process?
Several international participants explained the methods they use to review programs emanating from other countries. A wide range of methods are employed to assure quality including: comparison of programs offered abroad with equivalent programs offered in the home country, comparison of provider with host country standards; and comparison with their own published standards and mutual recognition. In some cases, programs have to be approved before they are offered. Some countries allowed providers to set quality standards without review; a few excluded all "foreign" courses from approval. Several participants noted that quality assurance was easier when courses or programs were offered at a site in country rather than solely on the Internet. Nonetheless, institutions of higher education and employers will increasingly need to consider quality assurance for Internet programs as more and more students present them for credit.
Participants also expressed concerns about the increasing risk of students paying for courses (taken through the Internet or offered in a country by foreign providers) that are below minimum standards or that are offered by questionable providers who collect the fees but are unreachable when the student finds out he or she has been deceived. It was noted, that in Hong Kong, one billion Hong Kong dollars were spent each year on offshore courses. Thus the issues of both quality and consumer protection are very real.
Participants agreed that better mechanisms are needed to share information about quality assurance and accredited institutions in each country, questionable providers, standards for review of quality in different countries, and good practices. There was also a suggestion that uniform standards and procedures be established worldwide. This idea was not supported by most of the participants, who suggested instead that each nation had to have the freedom to adopt its own standards. It was noted, for example, that the European Union had been active regionally in education, but standards varied widely throughout Europe and were determined locally.
The issue of import and export of courses was brought up in the context of the less developed nations, where the capacity to offer distance education or courses is limited. This makes those countries especially vulnerable to outside programs of poor quality. Given their minimal capacity to monitor externally sponsored programs or the Internet, they are confined to the standards of the exporting nations. This imposes a major responsibility on exporting nations to ensure the quality of their exports.
In many formerly highly centralized systems, quality assurance is moving away from direct government control. There is a growing tendency to rely instead on peer review and outside evaluations. While the need for both market mechanisms and national quality control was noted, there were differences of opinion about the extent of autonomy that should be given institutions and quality assurance organizations.
Several participants noted the importance of recognizing the enormous cultural differences between nations and the implications for quality assurance. There is concern in many parts of the world about "cultural imperialism" by the major providers, especially Europe and the United States. Providers need to be sensitive to this issue and responsive to local needs and conditions.
There was agreement that improving access to information about standards, accredited institutions, certified programs, and the results of quality assurance reviews would be a very useful approach. This and greater cooperation among quality assurance organizations, accreditors, and providers on an international level were considered to be the most promising next steps. Participants expressed a desire to work together, to be more international in viewing these issues, and to work for mutually acceptable quality standards, greater clarity in the terminology used, and increased cooperative relationships.
The discussion began by noting that global higher education is an enterprise without boundaries. A broad range of political and economic issues thus impinges on the ability of institutions to create successful cooperative relationships across borders.
Participants mentioned a number of existing cooperative agreements in Latin America and in Europe (e.g., The Association of European Rectors or CRE), and between specialized and professional accreditors (e.g. the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology or ABET) as well as international organizations such as the Global Alliance for Transnational Education (GATE) and the International Network of Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE). Many countries are now addressing completely new constituencies and need to be prepared to evaluate quality.
It was suggested that expanded public communication fosters cooperation. In Europe, for example, both the Lisbon Convention and the Bologna Declaration are seen as successful insurers of communication, as is the Washington Accord. Some sort of framework is needed to protect the quality of education as a "public good" whether the providers see their efforts as a business or a service. Concern was expressed about the intentions of those trying to bring the import and export of educational offerings into discussions of the World Trade Organization.
The nature and type of partnerships for cooperation across national boundaries is regarded as very important. Information exchange is especially important. Some quality assurance organizations have found it useful to have foreign members participating in quality assurance as a way of improving cooperation. Examples from Great Britain, the Association of European Rectors (CRE), and a US regional accreditor were cited. Partnerships need to be two-way relationships if we are to create programs sensitive to cultural differences.
In discussing cooperation, the question arose as to the beneficiaries of quality assurance. Was it students, institutions, government, business and employers, citizens, or those protected from questionable providers? There was consensus that the beneficiaries included almost all of the above. Nonetheless, several participants expressed discomfort about the use of "quality assurance", meaning cooperation between quality assurance structures (whether governmental or non-governmental) and among institutions, in ways that appeared to be mechanisms to control the market—a kind of restraint of market opportunities.
The growth of "diploma mills" and other types of questionable international higher education providers is accelerated by advances in technology that have made it easier to set up educational structures. The Internet provides for broad access to advertisements for programs that may be of little or no substance or quality and makes it increasingly hard to assure quality. Cooperation was seen as the most effective way to deal with issues of quality in this area—providing information about certified and accredited institutions in each nation, publishing lists of quality standards and good practices, and limiting the cost of dealing with poor quality.
Much of the material on quality reviews and accredited institutions (especially in the United States) is readily available only to institutions, through libraries and sources largely unavailable to the public interested in the quality of foreign institutions and programs. Participants suggested that websites be established listing all institutions and programs that have been reviewed, and those that are certified or accredited. Without broader access, it is difficult for individual institutions to determine which potential partners are questionable, who the reliable players are, and which programs are of high quality. This is another area where bilateral, multilateral, and general international cooperation through information sharing would be of substantial benefit to everyone.
The discussion focused on:
- the utility of listing existing networks and partnerships, as well as directories of programs that have been certified through quality assurance reviews or accredited by peer review;
- the importance of trust, communication, and information about who might be appropriate partners;
- the benefits of mutual recognition;
- the value of foreign experts in accreditation and quality assurance; and
- quality assurance as a vital tool to protect students, employers, governments, and institutions.
The benefits of cooperation include:
- exchange of information on good practices and on different operational systems;
- protection of students and other stakeholders;
- information about comparability and equivalence in higher education programs and institutions;
- identification of expertise globally;
- enhancement of cross-national understanding of the impact of quality assurance on institutions and systems;
- providing quality assurance organizations with a chance to assess their own practices against those of other countries; and
- enriching the unique aspects of national practices rather than homogenizing them into some sort of international "norm."
Participants were divided into three groups to discuss the responsibilities of 1) exporting institutions, 2) importing institutions, and 3) those who assess quality. After these discussions the groups reported to the whole body, with comments being added by other participants. The general conclusions presented suggested that respective responsibilities were the following.
Responsibilities of Exporting Institutions
These were to:
- play by the rules of the host country;
- engage in discussions about the purposes of education in the context of the market sought;
- assure the quality of the educational programs being exported;
- become acquainted with international partners and understand their educational culture(s);
- have adequate comparability with home institution standards;
- be clear about motives for exporting educational material and courses as well as the needs and motives of the recipient populations; and
- think through the differences between requirements for distance education and on-site education.
Responsibilities of Importing Institutions
These were to:
- become informed about the contact people of the exporting institutions;
- understand the culture in which one is working;
- know the context of one’s own needs and the environment of the exporting institutions;
- understand the legal requirements of both systems;
- inform people of expected outcomes;
- keep control of what goes on in your name;
- review and approve what is imported; and
- provide for country control of assessment of courses and sites of study abroad and distance education.
Responsibility of the Assessors
These were to:
- insure that exports are the same quality as provided by the exporting institution at home;
- recognize the cultural sensitivities within the areas in which the programs are given;
- seek cooperation and mutuality with quality assurance organizations in affected countries;
- insure that the programs do not undermine the values of the host country;
- include appropriate representatives of the host country in the assessment process; and
- be open about requirements, process, and expected results.
Special Issues and Problems Regarding Institutional Responsibilities
A number of special responsibilities and problems were noted, including the following issues and questions:
- Are you prepared to deal with a diverse international student body?
- Have you taken into consideration special health and emergency needs abroad?
- How do we deal with questionable purveyors of educational programs when they are identified?
- How will institutions recognize their responsibilities to other institutions abroad that will be granting credit for their courses?
- What constitutes an education provider? (There is now great ambiguity and uncertainty about this question.)
- Should the same rules apply to distance learning and face-to-face instruction?
In the end, quality assurance organizations and those to whom they are responsible will have to judge the results of these programs based on information about student attainment.
Managing Student Mobility
Participants were asked to take advantage of the broad representation at the seminar, with half the participants being from outside the United States and representing every continent, to discuss the topic in the context of student mobility internationally. Student mobility relates to 1) study abroad programs; 2) exchanges; 3) private and public providers; 4) institutions’ "own" programs abroad, such as self-contained study abroad, graduate student field work, cooperative research; and 5) distance education.
Challenges Posed by Increased Student Mobility
- The need for better information about programs, their quality, and the institutions with which we are working.
- Credit transfer that is often difficult and posthoc to individual students. Institutions need to work out agreements in advance. The problem of credit values (i.e., how much credit is each program worth at home) is especially difficult.
- The need to protect institutional autonomy—the right to determine what is quality for the purposes of degrees—and the rights of students, employers, and funders to have some guidelines and prior knowledge about the nature and likelihood of credit being provided for work completed.
- Are we using the right unit of analysis for credit purposes? Should it be credit hours, time in the home program, total credits, or competence? How can we get away from the excessive adjudication of individual cases that currently occurs?
- While credit, in the long run, is the province of the institution granting a degree, we need to do a better job of making the conditions known—of "truth in advertising"—so that conflicts will be those cases at the margin, not the large number of transfers that is currently the case. A college or university degree is more than the sum of its parts, but students must be informed about the parameters of the process so that a transfer is not seen as a kind of lottery.
- The need to recognize that even today most students are moving in and out of the system regularly. That will increase in the coming years—including in the international arena. Some countries already have institutions in which 20 percent or more of students take some of their course work abroad. We must be better prepared to deal with the transfer and credit problems.
Mobility and Pressure on Contemporary Quality Assurance
- The credit value problem is creating fault lines between accreditors and institutions.
- Credit conflicts weaken the autonomy of institutions and raise the threat of external intervention by governments or other authorities.
- The academy, quality assurance bodies, and accreditors need to think more carefully about what constitutes a degree in this increasingly mobile and technological world.
- If we fall back too much on the formal rules of institutions, quality assurance, and accrediting bodies without having carefully thought out the implications of the new order, we are asking for external intervention and loss of autonomy.
- Part of the problem of responding adequately to these changes is the problem of resources. We do not have enough to do justice to these issues—even in the more developed parts of the world.
Cooperation between Quality Assurance Bodies on the Issue
- One way to maximize resources is for greater cooperation among quality assurance bodies, nationally, regionally, and internationally. Europe is probably ahead of most of the rest of the world in this regard and might be a useful model.
- Work needs to be done to ensure international recognition of quality assurance organizations and to differentiate between those that are recognized nationally from those that are creations of the institutions they review and thus of little or no value in judging quality.
- It is especially important to look at partnerships between the developed and underdeveloped worlds. In one sense the greatest potential market is among the latter nations, but they also have the fewest resources to ensure quality and prevent fraud.
- Such cooperation will be beneficial to both parties, increasing security about what are quality and what are not Quality Certified and Accredited programs. It will also increase sensitivity to cultural differences, improve the ability to adapt programs to national needs and experience, and enhance the chance to build links that foster quality assurance in the countries of all partners.
- It should help provide common solutions to some common problems.
- This cooperation will help collect examples of good practices and notable successes.
- Joint efforts at quality assurance are more likely to succeed than individual national efforts in this complex globalized and increasingly competitive world.
Where Do We Go from Here?
A number of suggestions were made about next steps that might be taken to address some of the issues raised during the day:
- The information issue is one about which participants felt most strongly. How do we get more and better information about quality assurance internationally?
- There is currently no obvious place to look for good practices for various areas of study in different parts of the world. Even linked websites would be an improvement.
- Several international participants expressed their pleasure at the openness of US participants in discussing these issues, the mutuality of interests exhibited, and the desire to see the problems as collective ones to be solved together.
- The problem of resources haunts the cooperative process. While some information is provided already on aspects of international quality issues, and one provider charges for the service, the information available is woefully inadequate. Correcting these deficiencies will be costly.
- A big challenge will be to take what we have learned today and transmit it to our institutions and, in the long run, to our students and faculty.
- We need to spell out the ideas we have been exploring, along the issues and the problems, and work together on finding solutions.
- There have been many voices around the table and some grave concerns expressed. Unfortunately we do not take the opportunity to talk together very often. The challenges are to think about and try to take some small steps to resolve them. We do not need another set of meetings; we need action.
- We need an "early warning system" about issues likely to pose political problems for some or all of us. Most were unaware of the recent US initiative with the World Trade Organization and thus unprepared for it. Others are aware of issues pending elsewhere that can potentially affect us all, are threats to our autonomy, or will consume vast amounts of our time and resources. If we share these issues (and discuss them when we can), we will all be better prepared to deal with problems when they arise.
- We might cooperate in case studies of good practices. This would be especially useful as a long-term multinational project.
- There was general agreement that the participants were not looking for some common seal of approval, but to collective and cooperative thought and action on the issues discussed during the seminar.
Judith Eaton concluded the work of the seminar with a promise to heed the calls for information, to work with others to assemble material on good practices, and to call people’s attention to the importance of connecting what we are doing to institutions, students, and the general public. She was particularly struck by the need for an early warning system about issues in the wings and by the need for much broader cooperation with each other. We can also help each other in areas in which we have experience, so that others do not have to reinvent the process.
CHEA agreed to provide a summary of this very rich day of discussion. An updated and expanded list of participants will be provided, and CHEA will convene a small group of representative participants to assist in drawing on the work of the seminar and to suggest actions CHEA might take to follow up on this meeting.
Prepared by Fred M. Hayward
Consultant, Council for Higher Education Accreditation
Senior Associate, International Initiative, American Council on Education