2016 certainly feels like the year transnational higher education really came of an age.

Everywhere you turn you’ll find a conference or webinar looking at the attractions of exporting one’s education services across the globe or delving into specifics, such as quality control and other challenges associated with universities offering their wares overseas.

With internationally mobile numbers stuck at around 2% of the world’s growing student population, why not take your education services to where student demand is unmet rather than expect them to cross the world to come to you to study?

Partnerships all the rage

And so partnerships to teach degree programmes from say Nottingham, Middlesex or Manchester universities in Malaysia, China or Sri Lanka have become all the rage.

An array of different models of transnational education, or TNE, developed.

Early on the emphasis was on franchising and validating courses to foreign universities and private providers to teach to their local students.

Then the focus shifted to universities in countries like the US, Australia and the UK opening international branch satellite campuses in far-away locations, with very mixed fortunes for those involved.

Equitable arrangements

notts-tneToday the emphasis is more about equal arrangements between universities exporting their programmes and partner institutions in ‘host’ countries doing the teaching the courses to locals students and students from nearby countries.

These more equitable arrangements let both host and exporter have a say over how courses are developed and delivered to help to ensure they are meeting local demand.

Online distance learning is also seen as an ideal way to offer transnational education.

Whatever model is used, transnational education is often viewed as a cost-effective way to internationalise a higher education brand, says Dr Vangelis Tsiligiris, who recently helped establish a new TNE-Hub to help share good practice.

TNE growing faster than international recruitment

The United Kingdom has been something of a trailblazer in transnational education.

And it seems to be paying off, with the rate of expansion of TNE growing five times faster than international student recruitment to British universities.

In just two academic years – 2012/13 to 2014/15 – transnational higher education delivered by UK universities increased by 13%.

At the same time international student recruitment into the UK grew by just 2.7%, says a new report The Scale and Scope of UK Higher Education Transnational Education, published by HEGlobal – a joint initiative between the UK Universities’ International Unit and the British Council to support TNE activity.

More TNE students than foreign students

Unsurprisingly, the number of international students studying for a British higher education degree through TNE has now surpassed those travelling round the globe to study for a degree here at a UK university. The UK has 60% of its international students studying towards British degrees overseas while 40% are based in the UK.

It is big business for UK higher education, with the delivery of British TNE growing five times faster than international student recruitment to the UK over the last two years, according to the The Scale and Scope of UK Higher Education Transnational Education report.

china-girl-reading-tneThere were 665,995 students studying for British higher education qualifications outside the UK in 2014-15 – more than double the 312,000 international (non-EU) students studying at universities in the UK.

The largest numbers of British TNE students are staying and studying in East and Southeast Asian countries and the Middle East, with Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Oman having the highest number of registered students.

Most TNE students study by distance and online learning or through local delivery partnerships. International branch campuses – despite their high profile – only make up between 4%-6% of the TNE delivery, according to the HEGlobal report.

Started low-key in Europe

Although TNE is now an essential third-stream of income for many universities in major exporting countries like the US, Australia and the UK (and more recently for Germany, France and the Netherlands), it all started as quite a low-key activity a few decades ago, recalls Vangelis Tsiligiris, who is now at Nottingham Trent University.

And he should know, for he was Principal of the College of Crete, a small private college, from 2003-15. The college had 200 students doing MBA and bachelor of business programmes from Staffordshire University, University of London International Programmes and Charles University, Prague in the Czech Republic.

Now a Principal Lecturer at Nottingham Business School in the UK and founder of the TNE-Hub, Tsiligiris recalls: “TNE started really as a shadow activity in the 1990s when countries like Greece needed to develop their capacity for delivering higher education and there was increasing demand to have UK programmes delivered overseas.

“It was then that UK universities were approached by businesses and private education providers to set up franchises and validated courses in countries like Greece, Italy and Cyprus.

Demand was driven from offshore

“At the time, it was not a deliberate strategy of UK universities to export. It was primarily driven by demand coming from offshore.

“The very first wave of TNE was led by individual effort and projects; and because it was not a deliberate strategy the way it was planned was not always the right way and there were big concerns at the beginning about the quality.

“Large-scale problems, such as those facing University of Wales validation service in China, led to a rethink about how to handle TNE and to question whether franchising was a good thing”, explained Tsiligiris.

“The UK’s Quality Assurance Agency, or QAA, became more sceptical about franchising and tried to impose stricter guidelines”, said Tsiligiris, who added: “I would describe the past five years as a period of rethinking and reconsideration when it comes to UK universities’ strategies about TNE and some institutions decided to get rid of all franchising and all validation.”

As to the future…?

The new report from HEGlobal says 28% of British universities participating in its survey had UK TNE higher education programmes delivered to students in Asia and 23% of their TNE programmes on offer inside the European Union. But the take-up is much higher in Asia.

So what will happen when the UK finally exits the European Union following the Brexit referendum?

And will the tighter visa restrictions being imposed on international students and limits on post-graduation work opportunities in Great Britain make studying in the UK less attractive?

Will TNE became a cheaper – and better – alternative for foreign students seeking a British qualification?

The HEGlobal report said four in five universities they surveyed intend to expand their TNE provision in the next three years.

Janet Ilieva, founder of Education Insight

Janet Ilieva, founder of Education Insight

Janet Ilieva, founder and director at Education Insight, has taken a keen interest in TNE since her days with the British Council and HEFCE. She says transnational education has empowered certain countries to start catering for the needs of neighbouring countries.

Malaysia, Singapore, UAE, Hong Kong and Botswana have already declared themselves as ‘education hubs’ and ‘hot spots for TNE’. China is also now keen to export its education services.

Ilieva and others have identified the Philippines as one of the ‘hotspots’ for TNE growth in coming years.

So competition for traditional exporters of TNE like the United Kingdom is likely increase, certainly in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

But what will become of transnational education in Europe after Brexit?

Germany, the Netherlands and France are keen to expand their TNE activity, but they are starting from a low base.

Brexit could threaten mutual degree recognition

And there could be problems with degree recognition after the UK leaves the European Union.

Martha Thorne, Dean of the IE School of Architecture and Design in Madrid, warned of the dangers that the Brexit poses to the architecture profession, both in the UK and the EU, in a report for the arch daily architecture website in August.

She highlighted the mutual recognition of professional qualifications established by the EU, enabling architects qualified in any EU country to practice in another EU country without being required to requalify.

“By withdrawing from the EU the Architects Registration Board (ARB) in the United Kingdom will no longer be required to adhere to these laws, while similarly EU member states would not be required to recognise British degrees,” said Thorne. She fears that such a change would deter British students from studying in mainland Europe, and deter other students from studying in Britain, as students would have to “jump through hoops” to get their qualifications recognised in their home country.

Vangelis Tsiligiris, founder of the TNE-Hub

Vangelis Tsiligiris, founder of the TNE-Hub

As for TNE expansion into Europe, Tsiligiris cites the situation in Greece where the government recognises the professional rights of graduates from UK TNE partnerships only on the basis of the EU directive.

“If UK was to leave the EU and European Economic Area, or EEA, and EU law was no longer applicable, then UK TNE in Greece would become totally redundant and any graduates from these programmes would not be able to have their degree recognised in Greece,” said Tsiligiris.

Just some of the twists in the road ahead for UK universities after Brexit: There will probably be more bumps before Britain finally bids adieu to the European Union.

For more see:

France: First steps towards an internationalisation strategy
By François Therin, University World News, 30 September 2016

UK eyes European TNE growth after Brexit
By Nic Mitchell, University World News, 2 September 2016

Germany and Netherlands step up TNE activity
By Nic Mitchell, University World News, 14 June 2016

Martha Thorne Urges UK to Preserve International Recognition of Qualifications in Wake of Brexit
arch daily, 4 August 2016