Dean Forbes


TNE Good Practice Workshop


2 August 2006

Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International)

Flinders University

Today’s workshop had two main objectives.  One was about the dissemination of information about Australian Education Internal’s (AEI) Good Practice Projects among TNQ practitioners.  The other was embedding good practice, and building upon it.

The conversations today have, I think, moved us along towards achieving both of these objectives.

In an earlier stage of my career I worked on a number of ODA projects, both in terms of the delivery and in assessment of projects i.e. appraisal and evaluation.  This experience has helped shape the way in which I think of TN education programs.  I learned two main lessons about essential features of successful ODA projects.

First, the most significant indicator of success is the work that goes into the preparation and design of projects.  Second, the most difficult aspect to achieve in a project is to get the correct blend of the hard and soft requirements of the project.  On the one hand, the financial and technology aspects, and on the other hand, building and sustaining the skills and processes for working in a multicultural environment.

We who work in international education seem to comfortably balance competition and collaboration.  We stand on each others’ shoulders in international education.  And, incidentally, for no greater reward, generally, other than contributing to the collective goal of improving international practice.

The workshop here today has drawn on 1,000 pages of research reports, 140 pages of the workshop synthesis report, and, today, six hours and twenty minutes of ‘nuanced’ discussion.  My comments are organised around the four main workshop themes, and concludes with Next Directions.

Theme 1

Frameworks, Models, Tools

Ability to talk about good practice in TN education in terms of frameworks, models and tools across all universities, let alone the whole education sector, remains bedevilled by 3 problems

Problems of the common understanding about what we mean by TN education.  There are definitions. But it is the issue of consistency of use, and understanding.  In addition, I agree with the point made earlier in the day – distance education, on-line or not, should be a part of this dialogue.

The absence of robust data.  And if you are of the view that we have problems with university data, it is probably no surprise that it is a bigger problem for the other sectors.  Nationally of course, this means we don’t know the real extent of Australian TN education, or where it is delivered.

There is no one size fits all quality framework.  At one point during the day it was suggested that there are only two main models of delivery by universities, but in truth there are many more than two.  TN education is a very complex area of activity.

The AUQA quality assurance framework is built around the concept of ‘fitness for purpose’.  Many universities currently structure their QA, to a certain extent, to fit the AUQA context.  Is it the best QA model for TN education in the future?  I suspect it is, but as my own institution is in the middle of an AUQA audit, I suppose I should be more guarded.  And what kind of framework is appropriate for other education sectors?  If it is not the AUQA model, and most would believe this is not replicable across all sectors, then it raises the question of what real alternatives are there?  This is something for investigation in the future.

Another issue that occurred to me in the course of the day’s discussions is this.  If a TN program is regarded very positively by students, the government, the partners and the Australian institution, yet there is a minimal QA framework, is this a satisfactory situation?  In other words, what is our main purpose in developing TN quality processes: to have good processes, or have good programs (or both)?  Moreover, how do we judge the QA framework?  Are there examples of very elaborate QA frameworks, but poor TN programs?

Theme 2

Governance and Risk Management

The observation was made in one of the sessions that the 15 TN good practice research projects have created a kind of springboard.  Now the task is to systematically work through the value chain (or the program cycle, as I would term it) and identify the gaps.  However in a session in Theme 1 it was pointed out there has been no evaluation of projects themselves.  In other words, no QA of the 15 QA projects.  I return to this when I look at next direction.

Some other key observations:

We need to be very conscious of the work load and resources issues associated with governance and risk management. All TN programs have a business plan, of some kind (fortunately we have moved beyond the days when a business plan was pencilled on the back of an airline boarding pass) and generally there is little scope for extensive investment in the bells and whistles that we can dream up.

An essential part of good governance is ‘a dialogue which is culturally competent’, as one participant remarked.  This is important.  We don’t always pay enough attention to the inter-cultural communication issues that are absolutely central to effective TN programs.

And in terms of barriers, there was concern expressed about the understanding we have of the government regulatory frameworks in the countries our TN programs operate within.  An example is China.  I endorse this concern. Though the situation is better than it was in the 1980s when there was an almighty battle between the State Education Commission and other State commissions and ministries about who was responsible for higher education.  It is not only China.  Another example was the difficulties we have with the US agencies responsible for student finances.  We need to work collaboratively to manage the risk of operating in the jurisdictions of other countries.

Theme 3

Comparable Standards

The issues of equivalence and comparability of the TN teaching programs are among the most complex. Several have said that TN quality is not rocket science.  But equivalence and comparability require hard, subjective judgements about working in very different cultural environments. 

Tony Adams spoke this morning about the distinctive features of McDonalds – standardisation and cleanliness.  But even McDonalds adapts “le Big Mac” to local conditions, as we know from that famous scene in Pulp Fiction.

In 1985 I was leader of a review of Australian water supply projects in Indonesia, of which there had been quite a few.  The very first was in the city of Bogor, and was built exactly to Australian standards – private pipes into houses, Australian standards of water quantity and quality, location and distribution of fire hydrants.  However, subsequent programs moved right away from this strictly Australian model, as it simply was not appropriate to Indonesian conditions.  The more projects that commenced , the further away from the Australian standard, and the closer the projects became to the local needs.  The demand for comparability cannot be allowed to throttle the equally (or more) valid need for TN education programs to adapt to the local environment.

This issue, applied to TN education, was a major part of the discussion in the group that I sat in on.  Partners in TN education programs often want to have an input into the kind of education provided, based on what they believe their students (and, often,  their parents) need.

Discussion also focussed on the need for ‘norms’ of good practice in order to assess quality.  Learning outcomes, and employment outcomes are significant in this context.  But surely the problem, then, is how the learning outcomes are assessed, and the difficulty of compiling information on employment outcomes.

There is also the problem – evidenced in the research on General Skilled Migration recently done for the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs – of assuming employment outcomes are primarily determined by education, rather than a whole constellation of other factors.

Theme 4

Student Experience

Student experience was described by one contributor today as ‘where the rubber hits the road.’  What is it that we need to do for our TN students, and how is that connected to the kind of services and environment provided by partner institutions?

How do we know what the student experience is?  One suggestion was we need to go beyond the brief questionnaire to understand from deeper research into the students experience.  The AEI International Student Survey was also remarked upon.  Is it the kind of instrument that would translate into the TN environment?

Another contributor noted that within the whole TN education environment it was the teaching and learning issues that were the most significant.  The reason was that this was where cultural differences come into very sharp relief.

The idea of an Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) regulatory regime for offshore students was also mentioned, at least once.  The concensus, with which I concur, however, was that this is not a road down which we would want to travel.

Next Directions

Thinking back over comments made through the day, I have six points to make:

First, I support the idea that there needs to be evaluations of 15 project reports.  We can’t simply assume that they are all of equal standard.  On what basis would we say that these all represent ‘good practice’?

Second, my impression is that there is support for a simple, robust overall quality framework for TN programs, which identifies a range of key principals of quality assurance and good practice.  We know there is great diversity in our TN programs across the sector.  The framework needs to identify, in abbreviated form, the most important principals.

In conjunction with this, we need an expanding database or clearing-house of good practices, of the kind that has been developed by AEI, to allow institutions to cherry-pick the processes that most suit their needs.

The 15 projects provide much information to ‘populate’ this kind of framework.  Then the gaps in the value chain/program cycle need to be identified.  Much has been done on this in the discussions today, but extracting it is not going to be easy.

Third, universities need to think about the AUQA fitness for purpose model, and whether there are any better alternatives.  I am not convinced there is a better overall model for universities, as I said earlier.

But I am not convinced the AUQA model would work well for the other education sectors.

Fourth, I would like to see us consider developing some alternative models of TN quality assurance frameworks, suitable for individual institutions of varying size and character, extracted from the 15 projects.  I know some of the projects had an implicit overall framework.  But can some clear alternative models be identified?

Fifth, We need some better understanding of international comparisons of TN Quality.  What do our competitors have in place?  Is there anything we can learn from their methodologies?

And sixth and finally, I will outline my only original contribution to this.  I think AEI should think about on interactive, computer game version of TN quality.  It could be based on Dungeons & Dragons.  It would show the journey of two plucky young international education practitioners working their way through the value chain/program cycle.  One would be a male, HEO 3, from an International Office, and with big ambitions.  The other a female Lecturer A, say in Ancient Greek.  The male would have the physical features of Brendan Nelson, and the female of  Julie Bishop.  This would, of course, ensure that Vice Chancellors would be keen to play the game.  The two staff would negotiate all the pitfalls of launching a TN program, and, of course, exceed everyone’s expectations.

Alas, it would probably be a costly exercise – interactive DVDs cannot be made cheaply - but we know how profitable international education is for Australia, so cost should not be a concern.  Does anyone have any good suggestions for a name for this exercise, as an alternative to Dungeons & Dragons?

Finally, it has been a long, albeit very productive day, and I congratulate you on the liveliness of the discussion.  In making these on-the-spot concluding remarks it feels a little like going for a job interview.  You know what you should have said about an hour after the event.  Thank you for your attention.