The United Kingdom's delivery of transnational higher education has been growing at five times the rate of international student recruitment to the UK, according to a new report.
In two years (2012-13 to 2014-15), transnational higher education delivered by UK institutions grew by 13%, compared with 2.7% growth in international student recruitment – and four in five universities surveyed intend to expand their transnational education, or TNE, provision in the next three years.
The new report, The Scale and Scope of UK Higher Education Transnational Education, says 28% of students on UK transnational higher education programmes are based in Asia, 23% in the European Union, 14% in Africa and 13% in the Middle East.
The increasing trend is for equitable partnership approaches involving joint responsibility with host country partners for the development and delivery of programmes.
The report, produced by HEGlobal – a joint initiative of the UK HE International Unit and the British Council – highlights the breadth and variety of models and partnerships in the UK’s outgoing transnational higher education provision.
Transnational higher education activity involves higher education institutions delivering their educational services in another country rather than the students travelling to the foreign university to study. It can include but is not limited to branch campuses, distance learning, online provision, joint and dual degree programmes, flying in faculty for short courses, or mixed models (known as blended learning).
Gordon Slaven, director of higher education at the British Council said: "This report supports our experience that the reach of the UK's higher education is growing ever wider, with more territories and regions hosting UK TNE programmes.
“We have seen a clear shift in the nature of TNE, with host countries looking to develop partnerships rather than simply hosting overseas universities. This move is clearly evidenced in the report's finding that there is increasing equitability in TNE relationships.”
The report says transnational higher education represents a “modest but growing” part of the UK international education portfolio and is recognised as integral to the future development of UK education and global reputation.
The five countries where the most UK transnational higher education is delivered (Malaysia, Hong Kong, Oman, Singapore and Sri Lanka) have remained the same since 2012-13. But the next five countries on the list have changed (now Egypt, China, Greece, Germany, India), showing that this is an evolving landscape, the report says.
Business and management is the UK transnational higher education subject delivered in most countries. Following that, medicine and related studies programmes are delivered across a high number of countries, and then arts and humanities.
The reach of UK TNE is extensive, reaching all but 15 countries in the world. That reach has been supported since 2012-13 by an increased flexibility in mode of delivery, with more programmes being offered as full-time, part-time or both. There is also a small but growing mobility of students between UK transnational higher education host countries and the UK as part of TNE programmes.
Over the past decade a number of universities have opened branch campuses. Well known examples for the UK include the University of Nottingham, with a campus in Ningbo, China and in Semenyih, Malaysia. Manchester Business School and Middlesex University are other notable players.
Lancaster and Strathclyde universities signed agreements in May 2009 to establish campuses in Pakistan. Aberystwyth University followed Middlesex University in opening a campus in Mauritius in 2014.
The University of Liverpool and Xi’an Jiaotong University formed a partnership for setting up Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, an independent university institution based in Suzhou, Jiangsu, China. The UK’s existing and currently planned branch campuses are concentrated quite heavily in the UAE, China, Malaysia and Singapore, though single campuses have been established in less well known locations such as Uzbekistan (Westminster International University).
However, there has been a slowing of the pace of investment in branch campuses as UK institutions increasingly recognise the challenges involved and host countries are becoming more selective and ambitious in delivering TNE themselves.
Innovations include the approach being taken by those establishing campuses in the US, with partner universities providing most of the start-up costs and ongoing funding rather than the host government.
There is also increasing interest in distance learning provision. This mode of delivery covers both supported distance/flexible learning and unsupported distance/online learning. Other popular forms have been franchise, validation, joint, multiple, dual, double and concurrent degree programmes, the report says.
Trend towards partnerships
However, the greater trend is towards partnerships rather than bricks and mortar or provision online from afar.
As Professor Michael Worton, vice-provost (international) and Fielden Professor of French Language and Literature, University College London, has noted: "Only a small number of UK universities have and will set up campuses overseas, but all will enter into partnerships with universities, companies and businesses, NGOs and governments abroad.”
Although partnership approaches with host country partners are becoming more equitable, the UK partner is “usually the lead on those areas of its global calling card of excellence – curriculum, quality assurance and assessment” and there is either an equal distribution of responsibility or a strong focus on joint delivery and ownership in other areas of programme delivery, such as teaching, staff development, and academic and pastoral support, the report says.
The challenges include quality assurance issues, because providing education across borders exposes UK universities to varying degrees of reputation risk, the report says.
Distance-learning courses may be compromised by online fraud – for example if learners use friends to complete assessments. In a branch campus keeping quality control may be difficult because managers and staff are working in a different culture to that back home. In addition, there may be tension between partner colleges whose objective is to seek profit and the awarding UK institution’s whose key goal is to achieve good quality.
Other challenges include the expense of setting up and the time consumed in learning how to comply with local regulatory and legal requirements.
There may also be tension with local providers competing for the same students, usually offering courses at lower cost than the TNE providers, which is seen as a “main negative attribute” of TNE, the report says.
The research for the report included a survey of UK transnational higher education providers covering their provision in 2014-15. The survey received 62 responses from UK higher education institutions, 55 of which have active transnational education programmes, including two thirds of the 22 higher education institutions with the largest enrolments (more than 5,000), providing coverage of around 68% of all active transnational education students in 2014-15.
Vivienne Stern, director of the UK HE International Unit, said: "It's remarkable to see both the scale and variety of UK higher education delivered outside of the UK and also how fast it is growing.
“We expect to see this fast growth continuing over the next few years.”
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