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The rise of TNE: if you can’t import students, export degrees instead

Transnational higher education is growing quicker than ever, but it's not all about branch campuses. Raegan Hiles introduces us to the latest developments in TNE.
This article is more than 4 years old

Raegan Hiles leads Universities UK International’s work on transnational education (TNE). She heads up the HEGlobal programme, a joint initiative between UUKi and the British Council to empower UK universities' transnational education activity.

Look at any conference programme about international higher education five years ago, and you might find transnational education (TNE) buried in the agenda, in a niche seminar hidden down a forgotten corridor.

Look at a programme for higher education internationalisation today, and TNE will usually feature strongly, often as a keynote discussion. The idea of delivering a degree from a home country into another host country is no longer strange for our universities, and developing new partnerships is a central part of most universities’ international strategies.

TNE is far from new for UK universities, who alongside other education exporters like Australia, the US, and Germany, have first mover advantage. Institutions like the University of London have over a hundred years of experience of exporting degrees. While our universities are adding to their TNE portfolios with greater vigour than in previous years – three in five are looking to grow their TNE in the immediate future – few are doing so as a new enterprise. Over 80% of the UK’s publicly funded universities already deliver degree programmes outside of the UK, to some 665,000 students.

The wider interest in TNE has crept upon us because we have accepted it as a norm of business, and so we don’t think of it as an ‘extra’ activity. TNE is now so embedded in many of our universities’ global outlook, it has been almost too obvious to highlight. Our universities have spent years honing their skills in developing and delivering the UK degree experience all around the world – in fact, there are only fifteen countries where UK higher education doesn’t offer any TNE.

So what’s the fuss all about right now?

  • The rate of recent growth is unprecedented. International student recruitment into the UK grew by just 2.7% between 2012-13 and 2014-15, but in the same time period, TNE student numbers grew by 13.4%.
  • Recognition, or realisation, of TNE’s potential is greater than ever. The government highlighted TNE as the biggest growth opportunity for universities in its 2013 International Education Strategy, and countries such as Australia and Malaysia are also planning TNE growth in their own international education strategies.
  • There is a marked shift towards collaboration and greater equitability with overseas institutions, who are more interested than ever in TNE partnerships with the UK.

None of these changes mean compromising on quality; in fact, quite the opposite. The UK still tends to lead on quality assurance, curriculum design and assessment in overseas partnerships, while in other delivery areas, there is growing equitability. Nor do these changes suggest any encroaching international ‘take overs’. TNE is primarily about extending the possibilities for students who might not otherwise be able to access UK higher education.

What does UK TNE look like now?

Three years ago it was generally assumed that online delivery would be the major growth area for international delivery. Little surprise then, that several global programmes have shown phenomenal growth with little signs of slowing down. These are not new programmes but long established trends: the Oxford Brookes’ BSc in Applied Accounting with ACCA was established in 2002, and the University of Liverpool has offered global e-learning for over twenty years. Far from students being forgotten online, the support that these programmes provide is flexible, high quality and specifically tailored to career progression.

Validation and franchise arrangements continue to be strong TNE models despite suggestions that universities might arbitrarily ‘kitemark’ programmes. Yet the overwhelming majority of TNE students study on high quality validated and franchised programmes where the UK university partner puts in substantial effort to ensure that those programmes provide students with standards matching their home provision. Bradford University’s franchised degrees at Namal College are rated so highly in the local community that they receive more eligible applications than places available, while Staffordshire University’s arrangement with Asia Pacific University celebrates the differences between the universities, combining their unique strengths to offer an enhanced student experience.

Branch campuses continue to be the big ticket TNE news despite being only 4-6% of the UK’s TNE. Campuses are tangible, often high profile, and with substantial impact, and so easier to conceptualise. There is good reason to look at the UK’s branch campuses as models of excellent practice. Established ventures like Heriot-Watt University’s Dubai and Malaysia campuses are well integrated and woven together in a whole university approach.

Universities setting up new campuses are learning from the experiences of established TNE players, and taking integration even further. The campuses we see today are far from a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ transplant of UK models, but developed in the context of the local environment, regional and national policies, alongside counterpart institutions – Newcastle University refers to its NuMed campus as ‘partnering with Malaysia’. In creating Bangor College China, Bangor University and Central South University of Technology focused on creating common aims and integrating expectations through staff exchange, which aided the transition from planning to opening in 2014. Branch campuses such as these can be rich hubs of global cultural and knowledge exchange, symbolising an increasingly connected and culturally equitable world.

What will UK TNE look like in the future?

The above examples are not prescriptive – TNE is far too diverse to summarise in a single article. The UK university sector has learnt from its long history in TNE, to being a world leader in the field. A recent report by the British Council and Universities UK shows the astonishing breadth and depth of this blossoming sector, and helps bust some of the more pernicious and unjustified myths that sometimes accompany TNE.

Do not be fooled that TNE is on the decline. Do not be fooled that that TNE is mercenary, and only about income generation. Do not be fooled that TNE is poor quality. TNE is not about colonisation, nor about expansion in the face of policy challenges at home. TNE is about growing relationships, extending global footprints, and reaching out to students who not otherwise be able to access programmes that they want to study. From our leading position, we’re getting even better at TNE all the time – strategically and culturally.

I recently asked colleagues to come up with new mnemonics for transnational education. My favourite was a series of questions: Trouble? Needless? Experiment? That might have been the case once. It most certainly is not now.

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