Cross-border higher education assists in broadening access, meeting demand for foreign qualifications, reducing the number of students travelling abroad (containing brain drain), and addressing local deficiencies by affording universities improved capacities in their academic and research performance.
But it also involves some risks: competition with domestic institutions; the possible influx of low quality foreign providers; and increasing inequality in access to higher education. These and other related risks generate significant mistrust of cross-border education in many countries. One means of addressing this growing concern is the introduction of a regulatory framework that governs its provision.
Up until now, the most common manifestation of cross-border higher education in Ethiopia was the movement of students to foreign countries, a trend driven by the absence of or limited capacity of local higher education institutions. While this is still the case to a large extent, unmet demands for postgraduate education, financial opportunities for educational providers and new regulations for providers have changed the terrain.
Currently, half a dozen foreign institutions operate in Ethiopia, having forged partnerships with local private institutions. All cross-border providers operate on the basis of programme mobility, with the exception of the University of South Africa (UNISA) which has opened its branch campus in Addis Ababa.
The functional scheme for the remaining institutions is what is commonly known as a franchise – an arrangement whereby the local partner provides all the services but the degree is issued in the name of the foreign institution.
Providers currently enrol a few thousand students at masters level where the demand for higher studies is strong. The University of South Africa is the only institution that enrols students at PhD level.
The most popular programmes are in business-related fields offered through a combination of both distance and online modes with face-to-face tutorial support. The role of the local partner institution is restricted to such major functions as registration, distribution of printed materials, tutorials, and collection and remittance of payment.
The potential dangers associated with rogue providers in many contexts is a source of concern as regards the registration and quality assurance of cross-border provision, and for those countries without regulations, the guidelines developed by UNESCO (2005) are suggested as a non-binding standard.
While some countries exporting higher education have binding guidelines for their providers operating offshore, similar to some recipient countries which are institutionalising mechanisms for registration and assuring the quality of foreign providers operating within their borders, the overall availability and enforcement of laws governing cross-border higher education leaves much to be desired in many countries.
Research indicates that existing national frameworks of quality assurance, accreditation and recognition of qualifications are, in many instances, as yet not sufficiently geared towards addressing cross-border provision. Despite these global trends, Ethiopia provides positive experiences in the regulation of cross-border higher education.
Ethiopia’s regulation has been effected through a two-pronged approach: authentication of credentials and accreditation of foreign providers.
Previously, the ministry of education would oversee the granting of academic recognition and equivalence arrangements for foreign qualifications based on information gathered on the accreditation status of foreign institutions in their respective countries (through Ethiopian embassies among others). The process would see Ethiopian graduates from foreign institutions securing comparable status and benefits accorded to local qualifications.
In 2009 the role was transferred to the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency (HERQA), which now has the responsibility of granting accreditation to cross-border providers and the role of collecting and disseminating information about the status, standards, and programmes of study offered by foreign institutions. HERQA also ensures that foreign institutions in Ethiopia are accredited in their country of origin and that they comply with the relevance and quality standards set locally.
As a relatively new initiative within the Ethiopian higher education sector, cross-border higher education attracted misgivings from the outset. In its position paper, HERQA (2008) said it considered the modality as an area of concern for higher educational institutions, students, accreditation bodies, employers, and the government at large.
The agency’s concern later culminated in the development of “Guidelines for the Accreditation of Cross-border Higher Education in Ethiopia” (HERQA, 2011), which outlines the need and conditions for quality assurance and accreditation of cross-border providers.
The legal framework proposed assumes that cross-border provision should contribute to the broader economic, social and cultural wellbeing of Ethiopia, and the strengthening of the country’s higher education capacity as a member of the international community. Cross-border higher education should not only instil in learners the critical thinking that underpins responsible citizenship at the local, national and global goal levels, but also expand the opportunities for international mobility of faculty, researchers and students.
The framework emphasises accountability to the public, students and government, and transparency in providing clear and full information to learners and external stakeholders about the education they offer.
The guidelines prescribe that foreign institutions should be accredited in their country of origin before applying for accreditation in Ethiopia. They should also form partnerships with local institutions, after which they must go through the process of accreditation that also applies to local programmes (HERQA, 2011).
However, public (as opposed to private) institutions that run cross-border higher education are still outside of HERQA’s remit. As a result, little is known about their operations.
Emerging issues and the future
Given the limited capacity of local institutions, cross-border higher education provision has immense potential to improve the deficiencies of local universities and institutions, especially at the level of postgraduate programmes where there is still an observable local gap. Cross-border higher education can supplement the system by creating additional access to international training without forcing learners to travel outside their country.
While the development of cross-border higher education regulations has assisted in preventing the illegal encroachment of foreign providers usually regarded as serious threats in many contexts, there are issues that can impinge on the success of this modality in the future.
One is related to the huge tuition and fees cross-border higher education providers charge as compared to local institutions. With the increasing growth of local postgraduate programmes, high tuition fees might restrict the number of students who wish to benefit from the opportunities provided. Cross-border institutions that operate outside the remit of HERQA are other areas of concern.
In view of the continuing demand for and the distinct nature of cross-border higher education, more needs to be done to put in place balanced quality assurance schemes within the system.
In this regard, the development of comprehensive regulations that can accommodate possible challenges in the area, extending the agency’s supervisory role over cross-border operators that operate in partnership with public institutions, augmenting the internal capacity of the regulatory agency, and forging better cooperation with foreign quality assurance and accreditation bodies that can supplement existing efforts, are important considerations for the future.
Wondwosen Tamrat is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He is an affiliate scholar of the Program for Research on Private Higher Education (PROPHE) headquartered at the State University of New York at Albany, United States. His email addresses are: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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