International Education: In Search of Quality

May 31, 2016 5:30:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

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The Problem

I have been thinking about the vexed question of quality. A troubling example: in a 1995 survey, students rated the law school at Princeton University as one of the best in the USA which says something especially puzzling about the perception of quality. Princeton University does not have a law school. It had one; it lasted from 1847 to 1852 and graduated a total of seven students. It was in almost every respect a disaster. Over 160 years after closing its doors, it is nevertheless rated as one of the best in the USA.

This illustrates at least one puzzling reality: a reputation for quality may be difficult to acquire but once you have it becomes embedded in the collective consciousness and is unaffected by reality, fact or reason. Were Harvard to introduce a minor in Alchemy it would almost certainly be considered an immaculate example of the discipline. “Psychic Traveling 101” at Yale would garner significant interest, not only from the deranged and disturbed.

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Everybody cares about the question of quality in international education even when there may be little consensus of what it means or how it can be evaluated. Some complexities derive from the uneasy relationship of quality to standards. The two are very frequently linked in the literature. Quality is about creating appropriate experiences for the constituency. Standards are about the content of what is offered as part of the educational experience.

The correlation between standards and quality is worth thinking about critically. It is, for example, possible to construct a course of studies with the highest academic standards that is inappropriate for the constituency. A lecture by a Nobel Prize winner may well be of the highest standard imaginable. When delivered to a first-year cohort, it may also be incomprehensible. In this context, high standards could equate with low quality because the needs of the consumers are ignored.

The whole topic is further problematized in the context of study abroad. By its very nature, experiential learning is characteristic and critical in this field; a consequence is that informal learning is of significant importance. It is also very difficult to measure. The quality of this learning resists traditional assessment methods. Thus, we have created new mechanisms that have proved, at least in my view, both imperfect and value-laden in ways that do not enhance the credibility of our field. We seek to delve into matters of student consciousness that are, arguably, beyond the responsibility of educators. An apt metaphor is that of a restaurant. The chef’s job is to serve food. It is not their responsibility to digest it as well. That experience is a matter for private contemplation.

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We also function in a context shaped by pervasive myths of decline. The past is another country enthused with golden light of perfection and we tend to view the present, not just in education, through the distorting lens of nostalgia. In the Judeo-Christian tradition there are numerous myths of lost perfection; the most dramatic of which is, of course, expulsion from the Garden of Eden. We are far from exempt from this consciousness in education.  

It is the nature of an older generation to believe that what they (we) know is essential. It is, however, also necessary for us to conceive in humility that the young may not yet know what we know but they may know things that we do not know. In this age of accelerated change, to be a guardian of a canon of knowledge is uncomfortable. If we only measure quality by the consistency with which it corresponds to the inherited canon, we risk becoming an ineffectual force for conservatism and reaction. The notion of “benchmarking” (which I will discuss in my next column) reflects this strategy: quality defined by the degree to which it conforms to what we have done in the past.

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It is broadly possible to agree that quality will be measured by the degree to which it aligns with objectives. That does not really help in the search for quality because within the field of international education objectives are neither single nor simple. They might, by way of selective illustration, be categorized as follows:


One object of international education may well be to improve the image of a country. Until 1978 in the UK, for example, a much-heralded assertion was that international education was a form of “soft” diplomacy: foreign elites would go back to their respective countries with a high respect for Britain and an innate empathy with British interests. That these elites included Idi Amin did not diminish the enthusiasm for the position. With the introduction of higher level fees for foreign students, the British government signaled a transition from an emphasis on diplomacy towards commerce.


The import of overseas students became a mechanism for the economic support of higher education in the UK as it is, indeed, in many parts of the world notably in Australia and, increasingly, in some parts of Europe. Universities in these contexts are actively involved in marketing to foreign students who can pay fees. Some universities are, to a degree, dependent upon that income; locations in which these universities exist have economies dependent on the institution which, outside of the main urban conurbations, is frequently a large, if not the largest, employer. The overseas students, themselves, are also important consumers of local goods and services.

In this context quality can be measured by customer satisfaction and, thus, by continued and expanding fee income: criteria drawn from a market-economy model.

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The university can be a means of creating economic strength in a particular country, region or area. The growth of universities in Ghana, for example, has been a means of developing national and regional economic and intellectual capital.

In another geographical context, European Union mobility schemes have had specific learning objectives. However, underlying those intentions is, I believe, a greater political objective which is to create the idea of Europe in the minds of the young. The fact that this version of student mobility is top-down, funded and driven by governments is some evidence that student mobility is intended to enforce a political vision of Europe.

Objectives in this context are related to the development of regional economies and/or identities. The quality of these endeavors is, therefore, measured against those elusive aspirations.


Further, how, for example, do you measure quality in relation to the export of young scholars from the global south to the developed world? Are the interests of the developing world best served through scholarships which fund Ph.D. research abroad for numerous promising scholars when, although the participants may go on to win Nobel Prizes, they will win them in the laboratories of Southern California? The issue of what is usually called the “brain drain” is a major one when evaluating scholarship programs if the objective is, in fact, to assist in development.

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Finally, most of us believe that a key objective is the creation of international understanding. We are sorely challenged to define the quality of our endeavors when measured against those idealistic objectives. They are, nevertheless, of major significance for the future of all of us, our children and the generations that will follow. We can sadly conclude that Utopian efforts to create a world marked by enhanced understanding and, consequently, greater peace and security have not notably succeeded. That does not mean that we should cease to believe that what we do has a positive impact, nor should we conclude that there is an innate futility in our endeavors. We may not have changed the world but we need to believe that we have enriched the landscapes of learning. Nevertheless, this example further demonstrates that measuring quality against objectives is problematic and troubling.

The search for quality is fraught with complexity and difficulty. We should not abandon aspiration but approach this topic with a degree of sophistication that recognizes that we are not living in a world of absolutes. We have to go beyond the notion of a “gold standard” against which quality can be measured. We occupy a paradoxical space and can only grope imperfectly towards understanding the significance of quality in the diverse contexts in which we teach and learn.

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We have an obligation to seek for appropriate evaluation mechanisms but, in so doing, we need to understand that this is a gray area. It would be nice if the issues were clear and the process of assessment a matter of black and white. Sadly, that is not the case. Simple solutions simply lack credibility and coherence.

Thanks Mike! 

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Topics: International Education