Will growth in transnational education continue?

For years, we’ve seen steady growth in the popularity of UK degree programmes offered overseas. When we look at the student numbers – over 700,000 students (and a whopping 17% increase) from 2012-13 to 2015-16.

The pace of acceleration may be slowing – headline 2016-17 statistics suggest UK higher education transnational education (TNE) only expanded by 1% in the last year – but let’s not dismiss that as an insignificant increase. That volume of students following UK degrees outside of the UK is no small feat, and for that to grow at all continues to be good news. The 1% does not show a whole picture. For example, any fluctuations in the three largest providers (Oxford Brookes, the University of London International Programmes and the Open University which deliver distance and blended learning to 55% of students and are usually discounted from analysis) can have a significant impact on overall growth. We should also ask what that growth means and where it’s occurring.

Our most recent look under the hood at the numbers for 2015-16 in The Scale of UK HE TNE showed huge variations by region and TNE type. For example, there was growth of between 0.7% and 5% in the Middle East (4.6%), Asia (3.9%), Africa (4.0%), the EU (0.9%) and Australasia (0.7%), and declines in non-EU Europe (-5.0%) and North America (-0.8%). We also looked at the type of provision and saw that the number of students studying through branch campuses increased by 11% from the previous year and students studying through collaborative provision (which accounts for 44% of TNE students) increased by 9%.

UK HE TNE in numbers

82% of UK universities reported TNE activity in student numbers to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in their 2015-16 data return. Each one of those universities plays an important part in offering a diverse set of TNE activities from the UK, delivered to 224 unique locations (countries, territories and recognised areas) around the world. If we delve deeper into those numbers, we find:

  • There were 1.6 times the number of students studying for UK awards overseas than there were international students studying within the UK
  • 82% of UK universities offered some form of TNE
  • Malaysia and Singapore remained the top host countries for UK TNE
  • The number of students studying for UK degrees in each of the world’s eight geographical regions increased by between 5% (EU) and 41% (Africa) from 2013-14 to 2015-16, although two regions (non-EU Europe and North America) experienced declines in student numbers from 2014-15 to 2015-16.
  • Asia hosted the majority of UK HE TNE students (52%), followed by Africa (15%), the EU (13%), the Middle East (11%), North America (5%), non-EU (3%), Australasia (1%) and South America (less than 1%)
  • Of the 20 countries which hosted the most students, seven were in Asia, six were in the Middle East and Africa, four were in Europe and three were in the Americas showing TNE take-up of across mature and emerging economies. 76% of students were on academic programmes in these 20 countries.

Future gazing: what’s next for UK higher education TNE?

None of us can truly know what the future holds, but looking at the changes in recent years in TNE activity returned to HESA, and the various approaches made to universities here, I see two shifts in TNE type on the horizon.

Prediction #1: TNE will grow with strong partnerships

In looking at the global trends shaping TNE, Janet Ilieva argues that. “Globally, maturing higher education systems will demand equitable partnerships.” ‘The Scale and Scope of UK HE TNE’ report showed that this is an evolution already in development, with greater shared accountability between partners than in the past. It seems to me that will only grow. For 2016-17, collaborative provision numbers submitted to HESA were 6.5% higher than the year before.

In the last 12 months, we’ve seen a major pump-priming initiative expanding opportunities and thinking in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) locations for UK universities, led by the British Council, resulting in more partnerships than initially envisaged. Joint Development of Niche Programmes through Philippines-UK Linkages will see 11 UK universities go live with 18 new dual degree programmes with Philippines universities next Autumn.

Prediction #2: new overseas campuses to open

We should continue to question the focus given to branch campuses in discussions about TNE. Making up just 4% of UK HE TNE (or 8% if we remove the three major distance and blended providers), they are a small part of the UK’s overseas degree offer. However, despite being a small part of the TNE numbers, campuses are critically important. They are embedded in the higher education landscape of the countries ‘hosting’ them and making the UK synonymous with higher education quality in those locations.

For the first time in a long time, there’s an upward trend in campus data – 1.1% growth in the last year. The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) has notes this trend worldwide, with evidence that campuses are defying predictions of decline. With high profile campus announcements in the past year, and major government commitments to collaboration in campus development – such as the recent signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Egyptian and UK government – the number of locations that UK universities create new foundations in is likely to grow.

What does the future of TNE look like from UK universities’ perspectives?

This is a question that only our colleagues based in universities can answer. Professor Patrick Hackett from Liverpool University and Professor Ken Neil from The Glasgow School of Art will share their thoughts on the future of UK HE TNE with Carolyn Campbell, Senior Consultant at the OBHE, at the International Higher Education Forum on 14 March 2018.

No hokum, no crystal balls, but plenty of informed horizon-scanning and insight. Hopefully, I’ll see some of you there.

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