Transnational education: A good-news story

The motivations behind the delivery of Australian transnational education have been interpreted as being everything from altruistic to neocolonial.

On the one hand, Australian universities are cast in the role of intellectual aid providers, delivering developing countries from the economic and social disadvantages resulting from a paucity of skilled human capital and supplementing overburdened higher education institutions that are currently at capacity.

At the other extreme, delivery can resemble the dumping of uncontextualised material into foreign contexts with scant consideration for anything other than profit margins.

Whatever the espoused and the actual motivations for Australia’s delivery of transnational education (TNE) may be, it is common knowledge that sector growth has been rapid, is increasingly complex and continues apace.

Within this dynamic environment, perhaps more than ever before, Australian universities seeking to engage in offshore entrepreneurialism are faced with considerable risk. While some organisations have reaped significant economic return, others have experienced equally noteworthy financial and reputational loss.

Indeed, there are warning signs that, after decades of seemingly unfettered growth, Australia’s TNE bubble may be about to burst.

Some Australian universities are reassessing financial and reputational detriments and as a result are closing down offshore campuses and programmes.

Importer countries are at the same time becoming more interventionist in the regulation of providers operating within their borders, perhaps because they have come to consider in-country TNE as a complementary and valued component of national medium-term human capital development strategies.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the unstable nature of the sector, there has been surprisingly little research undertaken that focuses on the TNE student experience. TNE students’ voices are rarely heard. We know little about their preferences, even less about the outcomes that they attribute to their TNE experience, and nothing in any depth about their longer term career and life trajectories.

This gap in our understanding is quite surprising – particularly when compared to other ‘businesses’ of the magnitude of Australian TNE, most of which would spend a great deal of time and money seeking to understand the motivations and opinions of key stakeholder groups, and incorporating their findings into strategic plans to ensure future viability.

Although many people are uncomfortable with the conceptualisation of higher education as a business, surely there is nothing sinister in attempting to understand whether or not this ‘service’ is meeting its stated aims in the longer term and at a human level?

Indeed, to consider TNE as something unique and valuable – something that is more than a money-making concern – we need to substantiate the often-claimed global engagement and societal benefits that can otherwise become very intangible indeed.

Benefits of TNE for mature students

Our study involved mature students who had done a bachelor education and training programme at a TNE in Singapore, and who were followed up five years later. All of them held polytechnic diplomas and most had significant (up to 18 years) job experience. Despite their considerable skill and knowledge base, many had been ‘passed over’ for promotion.

Some were concerned that they were approaching the age where one is considered an ‘older worker’ (which in Singapore is 45 years of age). In particular, participants recognised that a degree was a necessary passport to even attempt an application for a job in a prestigious and secure government organisation or multinational corporation.

All of the participants in the longitudinal study had attained new jobs, new roles and-or promotions, and attributed these outcomes to the credentials and knowledge gained from their TNE degree.

Typical stories included having escaped subordinate or menial job roles. Positional outcomes included “a very sharp acceleration in career” and “drawing in the region of 300% more in terms of compensation”.

Despite completing a degree that was not available in any Singaporean university and thus evidently not identified as key to Singapore’s human capital development needs, these graduates related impressive career stories and had come to include among their ranks human resource directors, local and-or regional HRD managers, and successful consultants.

For some respondents, positional and transformative motivations were contiguous. For example, the statement “when I move to the next level of my career, I want to know that I am able to grasp and handle my job”, reveals both types of motivation. In fact, most of the graduate respondents who revealed positional motivations also spoke of transformative outcomes. Several respondents spoke of a transformative element attributed to their study.

It was evident for such respondents that the TNE degree was primarily a platform for further learning. However others, who had enrolled reluctantly and-or predominantly for positional purposes, found that transformative outcomes were an unexpected bonus.

Considering that the respondents were self-described ‘late bloomers’, it was impressive that during the five years between research interviews, five respondents had gone on to complete masters programmes. Quite typical of these postgraduates was a woman who reflected that she would “never in a million years” have considered herself as a potential MBA holder prior to her second chance education.

Several respondents reflected on two transformative outcomes that they had not anticipated. One was enjoyment of a learned capacity to find authoritative resources when required: “Education doesn’t just stop there…resources are available everywhere and now you can find them.”

The second actually evidenced the development of a lifelong learning mindset and was described as "learning how to learn". As one respondent reflected: “Actually I now have a very open mind…previously I would say ‘this theory says this so that’s what we’ll do’…but now I think that is only one view.”

Thus the TNE experience has the capacity to develop an unexpected motivation for transformative learning, and postgraduate study. This is clearly a highly desirable outcome for countries such as Singapore, where government policies are encouraging lifelong learning.

Given the numbers of Singaporean students enrolled in TNE, this finding – it was a pattern – has significant implications for the nation state’s human capital development as well as for TNE providers.

Improved confidence

One of the most frequently reported transformative and potentially positional outcomes was confidence and credibility gained from course-based learning and workplace application.

Typically, respondents spoke of a hesitance to make their opinions heard prior to undertaking their degree. However as graduates, “I can express myself, be on the same page as [senior staff]. I can demand attention because I know what I say is meaningful in the field.”

This professional confidence was also described by one participant as being self-perpetuating. The qualification and knowledge gained “gives me confidence, and of course with confidence things go better…it adds a difference, you get a little inch taller.”. Confidence also underpinned respondents’ capacity to provide ethical advice and to convince managers and clients that they were dealing with a subject matter expert.

Credibility was also evident in the employment market, and “it’s nice to receive calls from head hunters…they do that because you’ve established yourself as a professional.” Clearly, potential employers considered some graduates to be desirable additions to Singapore’s human capital.

The ‘human capital’ benefit

Another benefit was human capital, defined by the OECD as “knowledge, skills, competencies and attributes embodied in individuals that facilitate the creation of personal, social and economic well-being”. It relies on positional and transformational motivations to create outcomes at a national and personal level.

The strategic development of human capital has been fundamental to the economic success of Singapore, a country with virtually no natural resources. This much-cited deficit has mandated the nimble alignment of Singapore’s workforce with the forecast needs of global business and has implications for developing countries in the region.

This has been achieved through ‘manpower’ planning that has maximised science and engineering intakes in local universities. Educational streaming dominates citizens’ career choices, but of course not everyone is suited for the career chosen for them.

In fact many respondents spoke of being ‘railroaded’ into early career paths for which they had little aptitude or interest. These mature-aged students accessed TNE to subvert the career plans made on their behalf.

To differing extents, the respondents in our study were gambling that a credential in a specialisation would complement their skill and knowledge sets, provide renewed job satisfaction, and fill a valued employment niche in Singapore.

They also recalled previous work roles that had frustrated them because they did not “really allow me to understand organisational issues.” Diplomas and workplace-based learning, as explained by one respondent, could “explain what to do, but not why”. As he said: “If I want to learn a presentation skill, I would have just done a simple two-day train-the-trainer, but the degree has given me more depth.”

This ‘depth’ was mentioned by most participants and was particularly valued when course-based learning validated previous experience. Several respondents had originally thought that immediate application of learning was important for understanding of theories and models.

However, over the longer term, some graduates found that the understanding they sought did not truly manifest until they had the opportunity to combine theory with practice during workplace experience (for example, praxis). Moreover, time was a crucial contributor to this depth of which they spoke.

Cross-border transfer of learning

Unexpectedly, the study found evidence of cross-border transfer of learning in the form of local and regional coaching, mentoring and training. Although Singapore was the primary work location of most respondents, many travelled within and beyond the South East Asian region.

Members of this globetrotting group of graduates maintained active, self-supporting communities of practice. For example, some individual members employed others; groups met to discuss HRD-related ideas and practices; and respondents had joined professional associations across the region.

Respondents also reported transfer of learning to local ‘grassroots’ community groups, and mentoring and coaching of work colleagues, as well as coaching, mentoring and ‘training’ in developing countries.

In addition they sought a degree that would add value to their professional practice by providing in-course international comparisons that furthered their global outlook. “You find out from texts and papers that other people in Western countries like America or Australia share what you think.”

Such comments and experiences underpin the need for TNE courses to provide exposure to contemporary global issues in students’ professions of choice, if Australian university degrees are to have credibility and impact.

Some problems

Despite the fact that their degree was from one of the top three Australian universities, as listed in the Shanghai university ranking, several respondents had experienced discrimination against their Australian qualification from both the government and private sectors.

A further examination of barriers to employment encountered by TNE graduates in Singapore is clearly required.

However, several respondents were drawn to reflect on the frequent media indictments of Australian TNE programme content. As undergraduates, many reported some discomfort with the predominantly American-Australian theories to which they were being exposed because, for example, “that is not how people behave in Singapore”.

They had experienced difficulty transferring the concepts to their work lives and lost interest when lecturers drew on foreign case studies and Western philosophies. However, on reflection, students thought that during their undergraduate studies they had developed a selective adaptation approach for course content that they considered to be too foreign.

In other words, the students were tacitly recontextualising course content for themselves. This was occurring both individually and during in-class discussion, sometimes independent of lecturer intent or realisation.

With the benefit of hindsight and work experience, however, many of the respondents had become less convinced that ‘Singaporeanisation’ of ‘Australian course content’ had actually mattered as much as they thought it did when they were students, because they were experiencing and enacting a hybridised and culturally aware practice that most agreed to be essential for HRD practitioners in all countries.

There was disagreement about the need for contextualisation predominantly based on the type of company in which respondents were employed; however, respondents agreed that awareness of cultural difference and a corresponding capacity to adapt practice were essential aspects of competence.

It appears that TNE providers should maximise the potential for in-class intercultural and transnational comparisons rather than, or at least as well as, attempting to inject local ‘flavour’ into course content from a distance.

The local knowledge of the student body should be harnessed rather than underestimated. TNE students may be better able to contextualise materials in-class because they can discuss transfer of learning with local classmates who are also Singaporeans.


Our study shows students have positive perceptions of the relevance, usage and endurance of their learning. It is thus something of a ‘good-news story’ and shows that TNE provides a potentially rich experience for second chance learners, which can change lives, often in situations where there are few other options.

We have seen that exporting universities still have some way to go in terms of overcoming ethnocentricity. Yet if we are able to engage with students in ways that incorporate and respect local knowledge and mutual learning, exporting universities can truly build capacity and thereby reap the socio-cultural and reputational benefits that they espouse.

* Lynnel Hoare is a lecturer at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. She is a relatively new academic, whose previous career spanned more than 20 years in human resource development. She has recently taught ‘working with diversity’ at postgraduate level and human resource development at undergraduate level, both in Australia and offshore in the South East Asian region. Her research interests relate to the nexus between culture and pedagogy, particularly within the Asia Pacific region. This is an edited version of the article “Transnational Student Voices: Reflections on a second chance”, published in the current edition of the Journal of Studies in International Education.