Stay in the loop! Subscribe to our mailing list

Borderless education: Lifelong learning knows no borders


May 2001 - May 2002


University of Newcastle, ACA member organisations and the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA)


This study financed by DG Education and Culture of the European Commission, was carried out from May 2001 until May 2002. Its purpose was to investigate the relatively new phenomenon of "transnational" education and training, i.e. educational provision which is "produced" in a country different from where it is "consumed" (web-based learning, traditional distance education, out-of-country "campuses", etc). The study concerned all sectors of the education and training systems, with the exception of higher education, in the EU, EEA and accession countries.

The study, which was conducted on behalf of ACA by Professor James Tooley and John Taylor of the University of Newcastle, in cooperation with the member organisations of ACA and the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA), aimed to establish, for the first time ever, an empirical overview of the extent, the forms and the sectors where such education is already available. Besides this quantitative aspect, it also looked into quality and consumer protection issues of such offers and came up with a code of good practice for establishing minimum quality standards in this new field.

The research conducted a detailed literature review, aimed at identifying the main themes, trends and issues concerning transnational education. It then searched for examples of transnational lifelong learning, with wide ranging searches on the internet, following up references in the literature and through personal contacts, An enquiry letter in English, French, German and Spanish was sent to a total of 990 likely candidates. Replies were received from 184 addresses (18.6%), and follow up enquiries made. Five case studies were then conducted, selected in consultation with the European Commission and covering the following thematic areas: quality control and accreditation, personal development and leisure, transnational certification, company and labour organisation training and traditional distance education providers. Each case study involved site visits to 'exemplar' institutions chosen to illustrate important dimensions of that theme, totally 22 organisations in 11 countries.

The research concluded that non-higher transnational education emerges as an area worthy of encouragement and promotion. The expansion of educational opportunities, in terms of both quantity and variety, represented by this provision, makes a considerable contribution to the achievement of EU policy aims, especially those in the area of lifelong learning and e-learning. The most significant of these policy aims concerns the issue of quality and information, and the problem of consumer protection.

The authors came up with several recommendations for establishing quality standards in this field. They advise not to use national government or EU regulation or registration schemes to assure quality of this kind of education as it may stifle the innovation. As there are changing and contested standards in this area, the types of quality standards that have been used for traditional suppliers may not be relevant to this emerging marketplace.

In author's opinion, three possible ways forward are opened, which take cognisance of the contested nature of standards in this area, coupled with an awareness that innovation needs to be nurtured, rather than stifled, if standards and access are to be enhanced. The first is to continue to rely on caveat emptor combined with the voluntary initiatives already operating in this area. The second approach would be to seek for national government or EU bodies to become involved in the provision and dissemination of information to potential consumers. But this is unlikely to be practicable in the diffuse area of transnational lifelong learning. But third, would be to combine these approaches, with the EU or national governments utilising existing expertise within accreditation agencies to assist in the provision of information.

Such an approach leads to six recommendations, based on the recognition of the tension between the desirability of innovation and any requirements to assure quality:

  • That the European Commission should develop a 'consumer's guide' to adult transnational education, and widely disseminate it.
  • That the European Commission should commission a feasibility study to explore the viability of setting up a Europe-wide information and brokering service for transnational lifelong learning.
  • That national European governments encourage - through fiscal incentives or otherwise - the establishment of national accreditation and information centres for transnational lifelong learning.
  • That national European governments ensure that financial subsidies to extend access to transnational lifelong learning are only allowed to be used through bodies that are either (a) accredited by a reputable accreditation body, or (b) lead to internationally-recognised certification.
  • That national European governments encourage, through fiscal incentives or otherwise, existing in-country transnational lifelong learning providers to either (a) seek accreditation with an existing accrediting body, or (b) seek to provide internationally-recognised certification.
  • That national governments and the European Commission should be sensitive to the need for innovation within this sector, and ensure that any regulatory requirements do not serve to undermine this.