Embedding QA in an International Startup – 5 Lessons from XJTLU

Sylvia Franke worked for three years as Director, Centre for Academic Affairs, at XJTLU (Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University) in Suzhou, China. This was during the early days of this UK-Sino joint venture, during which many QA lessons were learnt. More recently, Sylvia worked in the Student Lifecycle Support Programme at the University of Bristol.

There is perhaps no better test of university governance and organisational culture than a startup international joint venture.

My own overseas work experience was at XJTLU in China, established by two research-intensive universities: Xi’an Jiaotong University and University of Liverpool.

The XJTLU model was unique – we had our own independent corporate governance and budget. But quality assurance lessons learned there can also apply to other international partnership models. Here are my 5 key QA lessons that could be applied to other similar ventures.

1. Creating a QA “virtuous circle” builds trust and an element of freedom
At XJTLU, we delivered two credentials: the UK university degree, as well as the government-approved Chinese degree. And over time, we acquired certain professional designations that also involved QA. This, in the context of rapid growth: during my three years we grew from just over 2,000 students to nearly 7,000, and the university now has around 13,000 students.

Quality assurance measures, of course, do not work well when they are imposed – they need to be embedded if they are to be effective. And we in professional services at XJTLU played an important role to creating a “virtuous circle”. The more mature our internal framework for quality assurance, the more trust our parent universities could extend, the more ownership we had over programme design, and the more we could deliver a quality curriculum suited to our unique, international mission.

2. Incorporating feedback creates ownership and a more unique experience
A truly international institution from the outset, XJTLU attracted academic staff from dozens of countries around the world. Within a few weeks of arriving in China, they were teaching curricula that had been developed in the first instance for the UK. As they themselves were typically graduates of western education systems, they were able to quickly engage. But over time these curricula needed to evolve, as student and teacher feedback was incorporated.

We added to our regulations the principle that the first two years of the four-year programme should closely align with the first year of the Liverpool programme (to ease articulation to the Liverpool programme for those students who chose to complete their degree in the UK). In the final two years, as long as overall programme learning outcomes were achieved, and module specifications approved by departmental and university committees, they would differ more significantly from the Liverpool equivalents. With this balance, our academic staff had space to innovate and “own” XJTLU curriculum.

3. Peer moderation requires support but ensures consistency
The systematic moderation by peers of all module assessments, typical in a UK university, was the linchpin of our QA. It ensured consistency of assessments and marking within and across departments and across staff from a variety of national backgrounds. But this practice is not common outside the UK and took time to embed in new departments.

In professional services, we created induction programmes and conducted periodic workshops for all academic staff. We made special efforts to build relationships and information exchange with external examiners (appointed from universities across the UK) during semester, so that emerging issues would be identified early, and there were no unpleasant surprises at end of term. We trained up junior administrative staff (recently returned graduates from overseas universities themselves) in support roles for examination boards. And we ensured that ensuing action plans were proactively monitored.

A distinctive asset for XJTLU was the academic role of Chief External Examiner, an experienced professor who served as coach and mentor, and ensured that our assessment approach stayed grounded in pedagogical best practice and focussed on our students’ success.

4. Student voices need nurturing
Our students for the most part were admitted directly from diverse high schools all over China. They joined XJTLU in part because they sought a student-centred curriculum, but their educational experience prior to joining us was largely exam-driven and respectful of hierarchy. Involving them in university governance required active outreach, starting with the departmental staff-student liaison committees. Over the years, students gained representation on a number of university-level committees. Professional services, in partnership with academic staff and senior-year students, developed an induction programme for each new student cohort to encourage student engagement in university governance. We also managed systems for the nomination of representatives.

As the number of international students grew, this model helped ensure that their feedback was also incorporated in university governance.

5. Continuous improvement to celebrate success as well as address challenges
The implementation of Internal Programme Reviews had perhaps the most impact on embedding QA. These were conducted on a four-year rotating basis, with two to three reviews each year.

We adopted a standard QA model (very similar to Liverpool’s), including:

  • a self-evaluation process
  • a review panel (including staff from within and outside the academic department, a student, and two academic experts from outside the university and its parent universities)
  • coordination of visits and interviews
  • adoption of a summary report
  • action plans for both the academic department and the university.

Professional services provided extensive administrative support through all the steps.

Perhaps because we were so new, these reviews proved to be much more than an administrative exercise. They exposed challenges, aired constructive criticism, and had measurable impact.

Unexpectedly, perhaps because every member of the departmental community was involved in some way, the reviews spontaneously doubled as a celebration of what we had accomplished and an expression of our optimism for the future of the university. QA at its best….

So, how might the XJTLU experience be relevant to other international initiatives?
Our experience highlights that a joint programme is greater than the sum of its parts.  By embedding QA from the outset, new programmes will evolve to be distinctive from those of the parent universities. When setting up new partnerships, universities would do well by embracing this opportunity for innovation, so that they are better placed to achieve their goals for internationalisation and engagement in the global community.

Image credit: XJTLU campus 2013 by Goyah licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0