Transnational Education: Navigating Regulation and Innovation in Overseas Distance Learning

Craig O’Callaghan, Director of Operations and Deputy Chief Executive for the University of London International Programmes shares his insights into the increasing demand for transnational education, and the challenge of meeting overseas regulatory requirements.

Transnational education (TNE) is an area of significant and growing interest in the UK education sector, reflected in the increasing amount of articles, reports and conferences focusing on this theme. According to a recent research report from HEGlobal there are only 15 countries in the world where the UK does not offer any TNE and the number of TNE students in UK HEIs is increasing year on year.

Hand-in hand with increased TNE activity is the growing need for liaison with overseas regulators and quality assurance agencies. It is a widely-held view that this can be a tricky landscape to navigate. UK HEIs offering provision overseas are faced with the challenges of responding to a diversity of approaches and layers of regulatory frameworks.

However, a closer look at the TNE landscape reveals a complex picture from the position of regulators as well. Overseas regulators are dealing with a myriad of private and public institutions (some more credible than others) seeking approval or accreditation and they are facing the challenge of regulating a variety of delivery models, including: franchising, validation, joint, multiple, dual, double and concurrent degree programmes, top-up programmes, blended learning and branch campuses. All these models of delivery have known and perceived risks associated with them.

So, whilst there is an acknowledgement of the need for improved mutual understanding between HE providers and overseas quality assurance agencies; UK HEIs are mindful of the needs and local context of regulators (see the ENQA toolkit for quality assurance agencies). They all have in common the desire to safeguard their students who are studying with an overseas provider, to assure themselves and the public that the standard of the award and reputation of the overseas provider meet the regulator’s expectations and requirements.

Since 1858 the University of London has made its degrees and other awards available to students around the world through the University of London International Programmes. Our model of delivery has evolved over nearly 160 years of operation, but it is founded on the commitment to opening up the opportunity to study to all those who can fulfil the entry requirements and pay the respective fees without the requirement that students must study in a specified place or institution.  The critical feature of the model is that the standard of the award is the same irrespective of the place or mode of study or the academic entry qualifications.

This has paved the way for the introduction of higher education without boundaries on a large scale; and although today’s provision is substantially different to that offered to students in 1858, our commitment to the access mission remains a driving force.

Today’s University of London students have a choice between independent study or attendance at a third-party institution that is recognised by the University. From the overseas regulators’ point of view, and despite the face-to-face element provided by our institutions, our delivery model falls within the category of open, distance and flexible learning. Our experience is that overseas regulators may have reservations about this mode of delivery due to a wider lack of trust in assessment arrangements associated with this mode; a view that is compounded by the current debate surrounding the potential for assessment to be compromised by online fraud. As such our robust assessment methods are critical to inspire the confidence of regulators.

We regularly work with overseas quality assurance agencies based in jurisdictions where our students are, and we are increasingly experiencing regulators looking for a local flavour to the programme to ensure that critical skills gaps in the local labour market are addressed. Recent accreditation events have focused on the relevance of skillsets that students will develop through a particular programme and the relevance to the local labour markets. This frequently includes an expectation that technological skills are embedded in the programme of study.

Whilst students are increasingly indicating a preference for a predominance of coursework assessment, assuring the integrity and robustness of assessment is central to securing the confidence of regulators. Time-constrained examinations, whilst not always popular with the student body, appear to satisfy regulators and government bodies whilst offering the higher education provider a scalable solution to assessing large student numbers.

HEGlobal’s report highlights the increasing interest in distance/online learning as a form of TNE provision by UK universities as a trend.  An interesting development is the apparent growing expectation that ‘traditional’ campus-based students have of on-line learning opportunities. The lessons learned through TNE are now beginning to impact on the more traditional forms of higher education delivery.