Mutual Recognition of Quality Assurance Decisions: Potentials for Australian and Indian Higher Education Systems
Dr Antony Stella
Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA)
President Asia-Pacific Quality Network (APQN)
Introduction to Mutual Recognition
As external quality assurance of education becomes more ubiquitous, professional and sophisticated, there presents an opportunity for quality assurance (QA) agencies and education professionals to make increased use of each other's work, with a view to establishing more formal cooperation and recognition. However, formal use of each other's QA work requires that the agencies have a thorough understanding of and trust in, each other's processes. One form of formal cooperation is mutual recognition (MR) by two or more QA agencies. Mutual recognition is based on 'an affirmation by each that their aims and procedures are comparable (so it is likely that they would reach the same conclusion in reviewing and passing a judgement on an institution or a programme or a qualification)' (cf. The Washington Accord between engineering associations).
This paper proposes an approach to achieve mutual recognition of QA findings between the Australian and Indian higher education systems. The two higher education systems are very different in size, sometimes in structure and in their priorities. However they also have many common features. As pointed out by the 2010 project on transnational education endorsed by the Australia-India Joint Working Group, 'higher education institutions in the two systems have grown to a certain level of maturity, creating an organic community of intellectuals engaged in teaching and research; there are state-level and national-level requirements and responsibilities; the government wants the higher education institutions to contribute to national development; and there is a primary national quality assurance agency which carries out institution-level reviews. In both countries, the national governments are currently engaged in strengthening the quality assurance operations.' This becomes the starting point of the project on mutual recognition.
Goals of MR
Many interest groups including the Asia-Pacific Quality Network (APQN), the International Network of Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE), the European Consortium for Accreditation (ECA) and the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) have been working on the issue of mutual recognition for a number of years.
The QA networks such as INQAAHE and APQN consider recognition of QA work as the major goal of MR. The other goals of mutual recognition are:
- Understanding and knowledge of and by each agency
- Collaboration between agencies
- Research into QA processes and their effects
- Enrichment of agencies' activities
- Appreciation of the quality parameters underpinning institutions and programmes
- Articulation of the basis for judgements on the quality of institutions and/or programmes in other jurisdictions
- Sharing an understanding of the basis for granting credit for prior studies and for accepting qualifications
Many of these goals remain aspirational and some of them can be achieved only in the long term after ensuring the involvement of all relevant stakeholders. For example, the intention to use MR as a 'basis for accepting qualifications' is a long term goal since it requires, in addition to the QA agencies the involvement of others, in particular the higher education institutions and the accreditation bodies. In general the successful MR initiatives come from studies in regulated professions (eg engineering, medicine, accountancy, pharmacy, nursing), at program level, and between English speaking countries (eg United States and Canada; New Zealand and Australia) that are at a similar stage in higher education development. There are some MR agreements between governments for specific purposes for skills recognition. Beyond that, successful MR continues to be a major aspiration for many agencies, but mostly with little success.
One reason for the limited success may be the fact that most MR discussions have been confined to the QA bodies. While the QA bodies need to play a key role in QA issues, it is critical to know the perspectives of the other relevant stakeholders to ensure that the work of the QA bodies finds useful applications in the higher education system. Acknowledging this gap in the MR developments, this paper recommends a bilateral approach to explore MR, with the involvement of three major stakeholders namely QA bodies, higher education institutions and educational policy makers.
Status of MR in Australia
Until recently, the non-self accrediting higher education providers had to be registered in the states/territories where they operated and their programs had to be accredited by the state/territory based Government Accrediting Authorities. For the institutions that operated in more than one state, there was a process for MR which was still evolving. Current development in the Australian higher education sector brings these state/territory regulatory aspects under one national regulator and thus removes the need for separate MR processes within the country. As of 2012, the national regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) will be responsible for the quality assurance of higher education providers.
Australia has arrangements with OECD countries and neighbouring countries which supply workforce to Australia to recognise higher education qualifications and facilitate professional practice. However, mutual recognition at the policy level between the higher education systems of India and Australia is not significant. For the most part, Australian universities refer to the National Office of Overseas Recognition (NOOSR) documentation to make judgements about the quality of an Indian institution and the value of its awards. If sufficient information to make a judgement is not offered by NOOSR then Australian institutions will refer to the United Kingdom National Academic Recognition Information Centre. As these two sources claim only to offer guides as to the nature of the institution decisions on the recognition of studies and qualifications are not consistent over time or across Australian institutions.
The Australian universities have a number of agreements and articulation arrangements with higher education institutions of India that are very specific to the programs in which they agree to work together. There is scope to expand this institutional networking and explore the opportunities and obstacles at the system level.
The national QA body in Australia namely the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA) (which will be subsumed into the functions of TEQSA) has been an active promoter of MR. It recognises that, with Australian institutions becoming highly globalised with distributed operations across national boundaries, mutual recognition between QA agencies will help in reducing the QA overload on the institutions. For this reason, AUQA has consistently shown keen interest in collaborating with other QA agencies on the quality assurance of the transnational educational programs of the Australian universities.
AUQA has signed Memoranda of Understanding with eight sister organisations in five countries. AUQA's long term objective in the establishment of these Memoranda is to cooperate more closely with its international equivalents on the offshore audits and possibly conduct the audits jointly. Joint audits would reduce the duplication of effort by the Australian universities which are subject both to AUQA audit and approval procedures in their capacities as foreign providers in a number of countries in the region. A demonstrated success of international collaboration on quality assurance was the audit conducted jointly with the HEQC as part of the audit of Monash University in 2006. The experiences from this audit fed into the considerations about the development of other MoUs.
Status of MR in India
Mutual recognition has been a key agenda item in the work of the National Board of Accreditation (NBA) of All India Council for Technical Education for some time. To become a signatory to the Washington Accord, NBA had to ensure alignment in its QA procedures and introduced some significant changes. It now holds provisional status which means that NBA has 'been identified as having qualification accreditation or recognition procedures that are potentially suitable for the purposes of the Accord'. Qualifications accredited or recognised by organisations holding provisional status are not recognised by the signatories therefore NBA is further developing its procedures with the goal of achieving signatory status in the near future. Signatories have full rights of participation in the Accord; qualifications accredited or recognised by other signatories are recognised by each signatory as being substantially equivalent to accredited or recognised qualifications within its own jurisdiction.
Beyond NBA, discussion around MR is relatively recent in India and the National Assessment and Accreditation Council of India is involved in the MR discussions through the regional network of QA agencies namely APQN. One of the purposes of APQN is 'to facilitate links between quality assurance agencies and acceptance of each others' decisions and judgements'. To achieve this, APQN has been running a project for the past eight years (INQAHHE has been working on this for the past ten years).
The APQN project involves four APQN members - Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA), Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA), National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC, India) and New Zealand Universities Academic Audit Unit (NZUAAU). The proposed outcome of this project is a statement from the project members about the confidence they have in each other's QA decisions. The project is in the early stages.
The members of the Association of Indian Universities (AIU) recognise each other's QA decisions in terms of qualifications recognition. But MR across national borders outside AIU membership is similar to articulation arrangements the Australian universities have which are one-to-one institutional arrangements at the program level.
Key Issues in making progress in MR
- Acknowledge diversity and build on common elements: In many instances, descriptions of QA emphasise the similarities between the processes and indicators of different QA approaches. If MR is to be achieved, however, it is necessary also to recognise and understand the points of difference. The common elements can provide the basis from which the points of difference can be identified and accommodated appropriately. This project should achieve a balance in considering the diversity as well as the common features of the Australian and Indian higher education systems.
- Develop a deep understanding of each other's systems: Typically, QA agencies that have engaged in MR discussions have scrutinised each other's documents to understand each other's processes, main activities and QA decision-making procedures. The purpose is to explore whether they would be able to affirm that the criteria, policies and procedures used by the agencies in taking QA decisions are comparable and trustworthy. This exploration by two-country teams of experts with different professional expertise and perspectives will form a significant part of this project.
- Assess the rigour of the implementation of QA: While an understanding of QA approaches - both external and institutional - is critical to building trust, it is important to know how well the elements of the approach are implemented. This will involve observation of key activities such as a review visit, observation of meetings where the QA decisions are approved and making objective assessments about the rigour of procedures against predetermined parameters.
- Develop realistic expectations: Some of the goals of MR are ambitious and aspirational but they are important. While the project may not lead to immediate MR between the two countries, it will result in a report affirming the possibilities and benefits of MR which will facilitate the work of the governments, quality agencies and accreditation authorities in their strategic considerations in future.
- Involvement of major stakeholders: In the projects that have been attempted so far, discussions have been limited to only the QA bodies. Lack of involvement of the higher education institutions and the educational policy makers has limited the value of the project outcomes. Building on the work of the earlier projects, this project would bring in representatives from three domains - quality assurance, higher education and policy making - to explorethe MR issues in depth in a bilateral context. The quality assurance agencies (National Assessment and Accreditation Council, NAAC in India, and Australian Universities Quality Agency, AUQA in Australia) have collaborated since the latter began operations in 2001 (NAAC was created in 1994). The approach suggested here will extend that understanding and cooperation to other stakeholders in higher education.
In the light of the issues highlighted so far, this proposal makes the following recommendations:
- The two countries should make a commitment to explore collaboratively areas of quality assurance where the national bodies can use each other's work. A statement from the Australia-India Education Council endorsing this intention will be a good beginning.
- Explicit support for this work, including adequate resourcing and involvement of key personnel, will provide positive momentum to this discussion.
- Involvement of relevant major stakeholders such as QA bodies, higher education institutions and educational policy makers is essential.
- A collaborative approach by two representative teams - an Australian team and an Indian team - to determine where there is potential for mutual recognition needs to be initiated.
- The suggested composition of the Australian team:
- QA professional from AUQA/TEQSA (Dr Antony Stella, Convener of the team)
- A DVC from an Australian university with the Teaching & Learning and QA portfolio
- A DVC from an Australian university with international portfolio
- A representative of the policy making body knowledgeable about the recognition processes between countries (Nominee of AEI) " A representative of the Australian Qualifications Council (to be identified)
Challenges of the recognition bodies (NOOSR), VET sector, and inputs from the professional bodies and industry can feed into this project through consultations.
- The suggested composition for the Indian team:
- Director of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (Prof. Ranganath, Convener of the team)
- Head of the National Board of Accreditation
- A professor and chair of an Academic Board of an Indian university
- Chairman of UGC or his nominee
- Secretary General of AIU or her nominee
- A representative of MHRD who deals with the recognition processes between countries or a member of the Planning Commission
As in the case of Australia, challenges of qualification recognition, VET sector, and inputs from the professional bodies and industry can feed into this project through consultations.
- The terms of reference of these two teams should include: mapping of the current mutual recognition landscape, identification of barriers to MR and advice as to how obstacles might be overcome, identification of areas where MR can be achieved in the short term, and information on the areas where some adjustments are necessary to achieve MR in the longer term.
- Teleconferences with at least two face-to-face discussions of the teams - one in India and one in Australia - will contribute to finalising item.
- Wherever possible, the face-to-face discussions should be followed by observation of quality assurance related activities to understand the rigour of the decision making processes.
- The work of the teams should result in a report that should be published for wider dissemination.
- At the end of the project, the teams should make a statement collectively about the potential for mutual recognition of QA decisions in Australia and India.
- This work should be carried out as an objective academic exercise, independent of the two governments, and it should be thorough enough to inform and influence the future directions of the governments in MR related areas.
MR requires a realistic understanding of what is possible in the short term and how to build on early achievements towards achieving a long term objective. The Australia-India teams' work will provide a good base for moving forward in the direction of broad mutual recognition. While this project will be independent of governments, it will facilitate the direct involvement of governments, recognition bodies and the training sector through consultation.