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Joint degree programmes offered by two or more universities, often in different countries, can provide significant benefits for students, but also present challenges for institutions. Harriet Barnes, Assistant Director Quality Development at the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, explains how new QAA guidance will help.
UK universities work in many ways to create new and exciting opportunities for students. New guidance recently published by QAA focuses on one particular type of arrangement, where two or more organisations with powers to award degrees work together to offer a unique educational programme and qualification that none of the partners could offer independently.
The contribution of multiple partners creates an innovative and enhanced learning experience, often in an international context. On successfully completing the course, a student receives a qualification that acknowledges the distinctiveness of the experience.
To take just one example, two universities with international reputations for engineering and design respectively might come together to offer a joint Master's degree that draws on and, more importantly, integrates the expertise of the two disciplines, creating graduates who can apply the principles of good design to engineering solutions.
Often the universities involved in these kinds of arrangements are in different countries, and students move between them studying for a period at each partner organisation, which gives students a greater international perspective.
This can create improved employment opportunities in the global marketplace, as in the case of a graduate who becomes eligible to practise law in two different jurisdictions as a result of completing a programme offered jointly by two leading law schools. In other cases, programmes might draw on existing research collaborations, or help to build new ones, offering students the opportunity to experience cutting-edge research as it takes place.
Given the range of reasons that might stimulate development of a programme of this kind, it is not surprising that the sector has created a wide variety of operational models to suit its different needs. The guidance that QAA has developed in consultation with UK higher education providers aims to build a common understanding of the key features of qualifications involving more than one degree-awarding body.
To achieve this, we have identified two broad types of practice. In co-dependent arrangements, students have to meet the requirements of all the awarding bodies involved to gain their final qualification. Other arrangements are integrated but the qualifications are ultimately independent, so the student may only gain one, depending on how far he or she progresses through the programme.
Inevitably, given the complexity of arrangements of this type and the fact that by definition they require organisations to pool their degree-awarding powers, there are also challenges in ensuring that the academic standards of all the partners are maintained. The guidance highlights typical approaches to quality assurance based on the extent to which joint decisions need to be made about student achievement.
We stress that the focus should be on the principles that need to be met in securing standards, rather than an insistence on existing processes. To be successful, qualifications involving more than one degree-awarding body need to be underpinned by a genuine collective enterprise between the partners, and a desire to build relationships in which these questions can be explored and resolved to create innovative learning experiences for students.
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