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Solving the Regulatory Challenges of International Campuses

Cross-border higher education inherently operates in multiple jurisdictions, each with its own regulations. That has created a problem for branch campuses and other foreign-education outposts: How should educational quality-assurance agencies in the host country treat programs that have already been evaluated in the home country?

In a buyer-beware world, it may seem prudent for the host country to ignore any outside evaluations and insist that everything be done according to local rules. But this approach raises the potential for conflicting policies’ creating a Catch-22 for legitimate institutions. Still, this remains the preferred option for most countries.

Another option is having a single agency with authority to evaluate institutions across multiple jurisdictions. There seems to be little appetite to move in that direction, though, as most countries are reluctant to cede control over their higher-education systems to a multinational bureaucracy.

A third option would be having quality-assurance rules in one jurisdiction satisfy the requirements in another jurisdiction. Dubai is an example of this. In the emirate, branch campuses are exempted from local regulations if they demonstrate that they have undergone an adequate quality-assurance review by a recognized entity elsewhere.

Cross-border quality assurance isn’t just an international issue, though. The dilemmas are evident in the United States and other countries where the primary authority over higher education is divided among regional entities. With this in mind, we were interested to see a new report in the United States that suggested reciprocity as a way to simplify the regulatory burdens for institutions that operate in multiple states.

“Advancing Access Through Regulatory Reform,” developed by the Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education, suggests creating a system of mutual recognition that places responsibility on the home states for the activities of their institutions when they cross state borders. The report focused primarily on the delivery of distance education, mostly via the Internet. However, there may be takeaways that could help inform discussions about international education.

The general idea is for states to develop a common set of minimum standards, designate who is responsible for quality assurance, and liberalize education-delivery authorization policies (in the international setting, we might refer to these as trade policies). And although the report argues that states should continue to have the ability to regulate any institution with a physical presence within their borders (a familiar hedge in international discussions of quality), it outlines a policy of regulatory reciprocity that could alleviate the duplication of efforts that multiple reviews would entail.

In the report, reciprocity would require a high level of trust among the partners. Compared with many international relationships, this trust should be easier to attain among a group of states held together by a common culture, language, and national government. Yet even within the United States, trust is remarkably hard to come by. It is certainly not a given for regulating across state lines any more than it is across national boundaries.

Nonetheless, any attempts to develop multinational reciprocity of quality-assurance frameworks will need to build trust. The report gives us a few ideas on how to move forward.

1) Participation is voluntary. Quality assurance is the responsibility of state and national governments. Any attempt to develop reciprocity agreements to allow for cross-border higher education should be voluntary – to enter into as well as to leave.

2) Hold exporting states accountable. The locus of quality-assurance responsibility should fall on the home government to ensure that the institution is financially viable, of reputable quality, and has the necessary services to support student success. This means that quality-assurance policies in each country need to explicitly respond to the cross-border intentions of their institutions, rather than adopting an “out of state, out of mind” perspective.

3) Some programs still require state licensing. Reciprocity should not apply to programs that have a critical cultural component and direct impact on the health and well-being of citizens of the state. For example, states should retain authority over who is licensed to teach or practice medicine (and this includes regulating how those individuals are trained). But most programs do not have such critical dimensions to them and could be quite readily opened to regulatory reciprocity without undue risk.

4) Use regional compacts. Rather than trying to develop a national framework to enforce reciprocity, the report suggests that four existing regional compacts should be responsible for its development. At this point, it would prove too difficult to create a truly global reciprocity regime. However, reciprocity could be developed at a regional or bi-national level. Nations that exchange a large number of cross-border activities may find it worthwhile to develop common frameworks of recognition.

5) Focus on consumer protections. Because students in cross-border education are often outside of the “visibility of traditional oversight and monitoring structures,” the report argues for transparency of quality-assurance processes. Information should be widely available and designed to protect students as consumers regardless of where they pursue their education. The risk of fraud and misrepresentation in cross-border higher education is real. This point should not be lost among efforts to rationalize institutional approval processes.

None of these ideas are new. But the report does a service by putting them together in a coherent framework of reciprocity that both recognizes the problem and identifies the steps necessary to address it. A new transnational policy for quality assurance won’t happen all at once, but reciprocity agreements among like-minded countries could establish a necessary baseline of trust.