Dean Forbes


Australian International Education Conference

Perth 10-13 October 2006

Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor

Flinders University

TN education is important to Australian universities.  Around 77,000 students are enrolled in TN higher education programs, and they provide a significant contribution to university internationalization and income-generation.

Moreover, TN higher education is likely to grow.  I recall a British Council report  predicting that British TN educational programs will grow more rapidly, and have more students, than onshore international education programs within the next few years.

Universities will need to be able to adapt to the increasing globalization of economies and societies, and the different forms that will take.  Those running TN programs will need to be able to read and de-code the changing attitudes of students, their parents, potential employers, governments and competitors.  This will be no easy task for universities which essentially retain management structures more appropriate to a single campus in a relatively protected Australian environment.

Just as important as the growth in TN programs is the risks they pose to the reputation of Australian university education, and ultimately the sustainability of our universities’ niche in international higher education. 

Sustainability is an over-used term.  But it is appropriate in this context.  We have just as much capacity to ourselves undermine our business as any of the other externally imposed risks that we face, including terrorism, bird flu, or the death of Steve Irwin.

I will address four issues.


Australia’s TNQ framework is currently under development. There are some key principles that we need to retain, front-of-mind, as the framework develops.

Increasing government regulation of TN education cannot address all the problems of the present, let alone those of the future.  It would be naïve to envisage it could.  I don’t believe anyone in the mainstream of education thinks this might be the case, but there are many in the community who do equate more elaborate and detailed regulation with better education.

Improving and/or sustaining the quality of TN programs will depend on educational institutions – universities or private higher education providers – undertaking self-assessment and self-improvement.  The TNQ framework must therefore send the right signals.

•    First, it must signal that there are benefits to being recognised as a quality provider with the imprimatur of government.

•    Second, it must create an environment that encourages universities to identify and address quality issues in TNE.

The latter is happening.  I share with a number of my colleagues the view that the benefits of the current arrangement for offshore auditing of TN programs is the stimulus it gives to universities to identify and address any outstanding problems prior to the review.

We also need to give more weight and respect to our university initiatives.  For example, think of the AVCC Code of Practice for International Education.  All AVCC members have signed on to this Code.  Yet how many use it as the basis for assessing their standards of international (including TN) education?  Has any institution ever been held accountable in an AUQA audit for their commitment to the Code?  Has any university asked to be judged against the standards set in the Code?

If we are to be a vibrant sector the universities need to be on the front foot as the debate about standards in higher education intensifies.  Both the government, and the opposition in its education statement, have signalled that standards will become more important.


The sustainability of university international education will be dependent on the strength of the weakest link.  Currently, TN education is generally understood to mean any form of offshore education that has a face-to-face component.  This is a well-meaning definition but it does not take into account the risks that the failure of any Australian program offshore, whether including face-to-face contact or not, would create for Australian educational institutions. 

Increasingly we will see more and more diversity in the kinds of TN education which universities deliver.  Many will be mixed mode.  They will include face-to-face, on-line, and print based distance education, in some combination. 

The intriguing idea of the scholar-ship might well be followed by intensive semesters in a chartered jumbo jet, flying from city-to-city.  There is doubtless an Australian university somewhere looking at delivery by 3-D human holograms.  

The TNQ framework needs to be sufficiently broad, and meaningful, to encompass these future forms of delivery.  This is inevitably consistent with the need for a lighter touch approach.  That is, an approach that concentrates on the core issues, and encourages universities to transcend and manage the differences in the delivery models. 


The question of who might undertake a TN quality audit is less problematical for universities than it is for other education sectors.  Essentially we need a format that achieves the following:

•    Structures an audit around a risk management approach

•    Fosters an environment that leads to self improvement

•    Audits at a reasonable cost

•    Is an independent entity

•    Has a small core staff, and relies for the bulk of its assessment on trained and experienced auditors drawn from those engaged in university management

•    Develops skills in auditing TN programs

•    Has credibility domestically and internationally

AUQA will shortly complete its first five-year cycle of audits.  Is it the right kind of entity to manage TN quality assurance over the next 5-10 years?  Opinions will vary on this, but I believe it meets many of the criteria above. 


There are special features of TN education.  It is not that the students are all ‘internationals’.  We manage international students in most of our courses in Australia.  The TNE environment is special because:

•    The TN courses are subject to the rules and regulations of the host country.

•    The students are taking education courses from foreign providers while living at home, or in a third country.

•    Often there is a partnership arrangement with a host country institution shaped by local cultural practices and standards.

One of the risks of a comprehensive, but leaden, quality framework is that it imposes a raft of expectations and standards in a context in which they are inappropriate.  Standards in education are sometimes spoken about as if they are both objective and immutable. As if they transcend space and time.  They generally do neither, as anyone who had to study Latin at high school while not being permitted to have their hair touch their shirt collar will know.

There are additional risks involved in the inevitable desire to further elaborate quality frameworks, fine-tuning, and adding more and more detail. 

It is difficult to deliver, and quality assure, nuance and inter-cultural appropriateness in education.  For example, it is a challenge to inculcate critical thinking and creativity in a context where passivity in education is the norm, or where political regimes seek to eliminate opposition.  It is made harder when partner institutions are held responsible by authorities for the political sensitivities of the course content.

In a TN quality context we have generally settled on the comparability of TN and local programs.   Comparability must be made a very robust concept, but how can it be?  Inevitably there are subjective judgments to be made.  And balances must be struck between the demands of the local environment (eg political education, or campus culture) and the professional and educational requirements of the course and the Australian university.