UK quality on the global stage

“While interest in UK higher education remains strong, the move away from international quality standards in English regulation poses significant risks”

Though it may not come to mind as an export in quite the same way as cars, oil or whisky, education contributes significantly to the UK’s international trade economy with higher education contributing 70% of the country’s total education revenue in 2019. The global reach of higher education yields numerous additional benefits including staff and student mobility, research collaboration and knowledge exchange. The UK Government’s latest international education strategy sets an ambitious target to increase the value of education exports to £35 billion per year by 2030. The UK’s ability to meet this target will rely heavily on the global confidence currently enjoyed by UK higher education.

Reputation is not built overnight and the significant trust placed in the quality of UK higher education has been the result of a concerted effort by the sector over many decades, supported by a shared vision of what high-quality teaching and learning looks like.

Through sector-wide reference points like the UK Quality Code, Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications and Subject Benchmark Statements, higher education institutions have jointly agreed a roadmap for high-quality higher education that respects the individual characteristics of an increasingly diverse higher education landscape across the UK.

This is notable, particularly given that higher education is a devolved policy area overseen in each of the four nations of the UK by a specific body accountable to a specific ministry. While individual systems overseeing the delivery of higher education may differ across the UK, they share a unified commitment to quality. As one of few higher education bodies operating across the whole of the UK, QAA has worked closely with the sector for a quarter of a century to support this shared vision for quality and hold the pen for those sector-reference points that have played such an integral role in establishing UK higher education’s global brand.

QAA’s engagement with global partners makes clear how highly regarded UK higher education is across the world. Differences in the way higher education is managed between the nations of the UK, however, does not translate easily to an international audience – what is important for potential partners is that higher education is of demonstrable high quality and will offer a good experience to their students. In addition to the sector-agreed reference points, the UK’s adherence to the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG) has played an instrumental role in shaping its reputation as an attractive destination for international students, a leading source of trans-national education, and a prime destination for partnership and collaboration.

QAA has a long history of working across Europe with partner agencies and others, and became the first agency to be judged fully compliant with the ESG and thus registered on the European Quality Assurance Register (EQAR) in 2013.  But earlier this year, we announced our decision not to continue as the Designated Quality Body in England, given the current English regulatory system’s non-compliance with the ESG. This decision, while not made without considerable thought, reflects how important QAA’s place on EQAR and continued compliance with the ESG is for UK higher education as a whole.

Our alignment with international best practice and our commitment to collaboration have been crucial to helping UK higher education build such a strong global reputation. While interest in UK higher education remains strong across the world, the move away from international quality standards in English regulation poses significant risks for UK higher education as a global brand.  The vast majority of higher education institutions across the UK, including in England, operate well above the quality baseline and offer a high-quality student learning experience – this is something that we expect to continue.

Increasing divergence in approaches to quality across the UK, however, makes it increasingly difficult to demonstrate what we mean when we talk about a UK-wide commitment to quality, and I have recently heard overseas partners expressing their concerns about the English system in international fora.

QAA will continue to work across the UK and internationally to maintain and enhance the global reputation of higher education. We have begun discussions about the future role of the UK Quality Code in articulating a UK-wide understanding of quality in higher education. But a scenario where England remains non-compliant with the ESG while the other nations continue to adhere closely to those standards is one that causes concern, and should sound an alarm for the English regulator, the Office for Students, and the Westminster Government. If the Government remains committed to meeting the targets under its International Education Strategy, the UK’s adherence to global quality standards must remain a priority.


About the author: Alastair Delaney is the Executive Director of Operations and Deputy Chief Executive of QAA. He previously served as QAA’s Director of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He is also the lead for QAA’s European engagement.

Twitter: @AGDelaney, @QAAtweets

LinkedIn: Alistair Delaney