Out of ‘site’, out of mind? Overseas degree delivery and the student experience

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Internationalisation in higher education at home is important, but we also need to start talking about internationalisation away from home.

A recent UUK and UUKi conference about the international student experience included a discussion panel about the relative equitability of experience between off and onshore programme delivery. It was the first mainstream student experience conference to actively highlight transnational education (TNE).

Why has it taken this long, when TNE is now a central part of the UK’s higher education offer? 82% of UK universities are delivering degrees outside of the UK. Four in five plan to extend their TNE activity. And students can now take British higher education programmes in all but fifteen of the world’s countries.

Despite the challenges of the current political climate, our universities’ commitment to international openness has not allowed overseas delivery to be undermined. The UK’s Competitive Advantage 2017 report showed that:

  • International students are still more likely to recommend the UK than any other leading English-language study destination. They rank the UK first compared to the USA, Canada, Australia, Germany and the Netherlands – and at all levels of study
  • International student satisfaction in the UK overall is higher than in any other of these countries, again at every level – especially among international undergraduate students (92%)
  • International students’ overall satisfaction with support services and living experience at their UK university ranks first compared to other countries

We have no comparative student experience data for TNE students. That doesn’t mean we can’t explore what makes TNE a positive experience for a student studying a UK programme overseas. Our universities have been delivering degrees across borders for over a hundred years, and colleagues involved in programme delivery both here and overseas have ample experience to draw on.

No longer the future, but the present

TNE is the present: it has well and truly arrived as a critical part of our universities’ international activity. Over 700,000 students were studying for UK degrees outside of the UK in 2015–16 – more than one and a half times the number of international students studying in the UK.

Despite talk of the gold rush being over for transnational education, universities continue to engage in all forms of offshore delivery. Just last month, the University of Birmingham announced a new campus in Dubai and the University of Aberdeen in Qatar. Meanwhile distance learning goes from strength to strength, and last week Universities UK and the French University Presidents’ Conference signed a joint declaration which included commitment to developing more joint degrees between the two nations.

Show me the money

With TNE growing, we seem committed to keeping the discussion about offshore programmes resolutely focused on income. Yet while TNE was valued at £496m to the UK in 2012-13, we know that little of that is returned directly as profit. Anecdotally, university managers believe it can take a decade before a branch campus shows a return on investment. Rather, TNE investment can provide less tangible but equally important returns, described as the ‘halo effect’.

So TNE isn’t about generating cash surpluses for universities. It’s about extending global awareness, partnership working, and contributing to global economies and knowledge. As Paul Greatrix observed on Wonkhe last month, “a genuinely internationalised university brings huge benefits for its home country as well as those in which it operates.”

Still, the financial risk in TNE can be very high. This is indeed an important part of the TNE landscape to get right, which is why HEGlobal runs sessions annually about effective financial management and due diligence for TNE. Get these wrong, and the consequences are significant for all universities operating internationally.

The overseas student experience

We too often fail to consider the ‘human face’ when discussing offshore degree delivery. Where are the students in these discussions? Where is their voice?

Operating degrees from multiple sites is hardly new for UK universities. Many have multiple UK sites and operate several campuses, which can take several hours to travel between. Our universities have long had to consider their student experience offer across sites, and generally conclude they are strengthened by their multiple locations. Few would claim to offer the same experience at each site, but rather to ensure that access to services is equitable across sites.

Are these principles applied in TNE? In the most mature programmes, perhaps. They have had time to evolve, for their basic operations to settle and for management to look more widely at the offer. But not always.

In the newest programmes, perhaps too. They have the benefit of learning from previous programmes’ development, and increasingly involve multiple teams in designing new activity – and sometimes their Students’ Union or Guild. But not always.

Some argue that the TNE environment is simply too complicated to consider the student experience in any great depth. They suggest that a programme needs to be established before a university can invest in the wider student experience. They argue that cultures differ and therefore there is no way to offer comparable experiences. And given that the vast majority of TNE being delivered via distance and online learning, some will say that there is less need for a strong student experience. Yet the UK has a long tradition of innovative delivery online, and strong engagement with online learners.

It’s time to think and try harder when it comes to improving the student experience in overseas’ provision. It is not too difficult, nor is it too complicted.

The most successful TNE programmes – those that have endured and have strong alumni commitment – have focused on ensuring that they engage with their students. This doesn’t mean transplanting the student experience from the UK directly to overseas locations; it means understanding what works in different sites. It means learning both from developments in the UK approaches to duty of care and student experience, and from host countries’ students’ expectations. Moreover, they have brought learning from other systems of higher education back to the UK.

We talk a lot about global universities. We talk a lot about the student experience. We talk a lot about international growth. Why aren’t we talking about them in a coherent, linked, conversation?

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