In February 2017 QAA published its handbook for Transnational Education (TNE) Review, which is one part of the new quality assessment framework conceived by HEFCE with QAA winning the tender to undertake this particular area of work. TNE Review is ‘the review process through which QAA, on behalf of the funding bodies and the sector more broadly, promotes and maintains the academic quality and standards of UK higher education delivered overseas.’ (QAA, 2017, 1). It is ‘aligned with and complements HEFCE’s Annual Provider Review’.
Since I last wrote about TNE review back in January 2015 a great deal has changed with regard to review methods following HEFCE’s review of quality arrangements. It was previously unclear whether TNE activities would be incorporated within the main review methods or considered separately; the answer to this question is now… both (which I’ll explain).
The consultation in 2014 on ‘How should the UK’s transnational education (TNE) be quality assured in the future?’ concluded that TNE and Institutional Review processes should be ‘complementary and closely aligned’. HEFCE’s ‘Revised operating model for quality assessment’ stated that the quality arrangements for established providers, such as Annual Provider Review (APR), would incorporate programmes delivered internationally, but that there would also be a separate process for international activities.
The incorporated elements meant that funding bodies expected to see:
outcomes data for students studying overseas used to form the basis for a provider’s own review and continuous improvement activity
the nature of the academic and other risks associated with a particular international activity fully understood and monitored by the governing body
the assurances provided by the governing body explicitly covering international programmes and students
measures for investigating when things go wrong applying to international activity
the arrangements for the academic standards that providers apply internally to apply also to awards gained through international programmes. (HEFCE, 2016, 40)
Specifically, “Each funding body’s own Annual Provider Review process may also identify issues relating to a provider’s TNE activity for specific further investigation.” (HEFCE, 2016a, 42) Reading through the Annual Provider Review document it is unclear what may prompt further investigations and how they would be conducted. The APR process is desk-based with a preliminary assessment undertaken by HEFCE’s APR Group based on an APR dashboard produced for each institution. There is no prompt to look at particular issues relating to TNE provision; it is part of routine business. There is also no explicit reference to international provision in the elements of the APR dashboard (Table 1 in the APR process (HEFCE, 2016b, 18)), although it may be derived from ‘sub-contractual arrangements: other providers teaching students on behalf of the APR institution’.
A new approach to review
The separate review process identified in the Revised operating model for quality assessment is now the QAA’s TNE Review. This was trailed in the specification for the tendering process and included the following requirement:
Regular published reports on the operating environment in particular countries – including developments in their HE and quality assessment policy, and the nature and extent of activities of the UK and other countries in this market – designed to improve understanding and to assist UK providers in developing their own activities (HEFCE, 2016a, 41)
TNE review will make no formal judgements on individual providers. This is because the process is structured to look country-by-country at TNE activities rather than provider-by-provider, meaning that no conclusions can be reached about an individual provider. The logistics involved in a review focused on one provider would have been too expensive in the current climate, with sector agencies required to find savings. “A country-based approach means that rather than sending review teams to different parts of the world several times a year… a single review team is sent on an annual basis to look at selected provision in a country, or region, as part of a single trip.” (QAA, 2017, 5)
Instead of formal judgements there will be recommendations for individual institutions ‘based on the evidence and time available’ and good practice formed from the experience of the two reviewers; these are aimed at ‘supporting the continuous development of individual providers and the sector’ (QAA, 2017, 3). Other outputs from the process are case studies to share good practice and country overview reports on the local operating environment and key thematic findings. These may well be informative to providers investigating new partnerships in the relevant countries.
NB: the first three-year programme of in-country reviews is to be carried out in the Republic of Ireland, Hong Kong and Malaysia.
The country-based approach is interesting in that it moves the review process away from an outcome-focused exercise (albeit that Chapter 10 of the UK Quality Code is the main reference point) to an investigation into TNE activities within a particular context. In theory it will produce a more holistic process and fulfils the aim to establish stronger links with equivalent agencies in the host countries. The link with the APR process is in the determination of the countries to review and the focus of the reviews then conducted via a desk-based analysis of available data. It is also stated in the TNE review document that the findings of TNE Review will feed into APR in that the latter will ‘follow up the recommendations made as part of TNE Review visits’. It is unclear from the APR guidance how this is to happen in practice.
Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) (2016a) Revised operating model for quality assessment [online]. Available at: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/media/HEFCE,2014/Content/Pubs/2016/201603/HEFCE2016_03.pdf [Accessed 3 March 2017]
Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) (2016b) Annual Provider Review [online]. Available at: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/media/HEFCE,2014/Content/Pubs/2016/201629/HEFCE2016_29.pdf [Accessed 3 March 2017]
Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) (2017) Transnational Education Review Handbook [online]. Available at: http://www.qaa.ac.uk/en/Publications/Documents/TNE-Review-Handbook-2017.pdf [Accessed 3 March 2017]