There is an inglorious history of horror stories to be told about UK universities' forays into overseas collaborations. In 1996, one institution (I'll spare its blushes) was exposed for applying weak controls over the degrees it franchised to a Greek partner who paid in cash - brought back to Britain, auditors found, in brown envelopes. In early 1997 the National Audit Office revealed the existence of an "unknown stock" of blank degree certificates held in Malaysia by another institution's agent. Even Lord Dearing's 1997 National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education felt compelled to raise the alarm about franchised degrees.
The Dearing report noted that some overseas programmes were blighted by "variability in the application of quality assurance policies", and it reported "an occasional willingness for UK institutions to accept a learning environment which would not be considered suitable in the UK". Franchising "must not prejudice the assurance of quality and maintenance of standards", it said.
But still the scandals kept coming, and even today - almost 15 years after Dearing - it seems that not all lessons have been learned. The Quality Assurance Agency has issued five "limited confidence" judgements against universities over their control of overseas collaborations since it was founded in 1997, the most recent in summer 2011. Of course, things need to be put in context. UK universities continue, rightly, to be held in exceptionally high esteem around the world, despite some well-chronicled problems. The sector's franchised degrees are subject to regular audit; the vast majority are sound and the number of problems tiny.
Nevertheless, pitfalls await. Boston College professor of higher education Philip Altbach has compared degree franchising unfavourably with McDonald's. At least hamburger franchisees, he observed, must make significant investments in equipment and facilities, while new university partners need do little more than rent some space. With universities driven to tout their wares abroad to meet funding shortfalls at home, perhaps we should be thankful that there have not been more scandals.
Even a few well-publicised cases can hurt the UK as a whole at a time of rising global competition. In our cover story on the University of Wales - the latest and perhaps most spectacular of overseas failures - Roger Brown, professor of higher education, laments a collective "failure of the sector to protect its own reputation". As head of the now-defunct Higher Education Quality Council at the time of the scandals in the 1990s, he is well placed to comment.
Under current government policies, he points out, "commercial and competitive pressures are going to increase". Universities seeking to diversify their incomes are likely to further step up overseas activities. In this challenging environment, the scandal at the University of Wales has highlighted the dangers of adopting the light-touch, "risk-based" approach to quality assurance being driven by the coalition government. The risk-based deployment of the QAA's audit teams - freeing trusted institutions from some of the more stifling bureaucratic burdens - is a positive move. But it is clear that in general, institutions' overseas operations must remain an area for strong, focused oversight. The UK's continued reputation for excellence could depend on it.