What do transnational education students really want?

Students involved in transnational education – learning in a different country from where the degree-awarding institution is based – are less concerned about the awarding institution’s reputation and more about a flexible learning environment and a close fit in terms of subjects available for study.

The British Council’s Education Intelligence Unit’s just-released Portrait of a Transnational Education Student, based on more than 160,000 student responses from 2007 until September 2012, found that students intending to study for a transnational education (TNE) degree valued the practicality of combining study with employment above the reputation, brand or ranking of the awarding institution.

“This runs contrary to popular belief that the awarding institution’s rank and reputation are what primarily attract students. This isn’t to say that students do not care about brand; it is simply not the most important factor,” the report noted.

“Five years ago students were really interested in the reputation of the institution but not any more,” Zainab Malik, research manager for the British Council in Hong Kong, told University World News.

“This reflects a greater level of trust in the quality of TNE degrees."

The report noted: “In 2007, universities had to rely more strongly on their brand when entering markets, as TNE in many of its forms was not strictly regulated.

“While this is still true in 2012 in a number of markets, in the past five years there has been significant investment in, media attention around, and legislation developed for distance learning, legitimising TNE to the point that the actual awarding institution has become much less of a consideration,” the study said.

One in four considers TNE

The survey – which did not include students at international branch campuses but included overseas twinning programmes, online courses delivered transnationally, and dual or joint degrees – found that enthusiasm for TNE had increased across all regions since 2007.

One in four students was considering TNE in some form, whether wholly or partially administered in their home country.

Some of the countries with the highest interest in TNE degrees included Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, the Philippines, Russia and Zambia.

“We are finding that the TNE market is following the student recruitment market, moving further South [globally] and towards the East,” said Malik. “In particular in South East Asia and South Asia due to capacity issues, as well as because of government support, students are turning to TNE. But we see interest in all regions, including Africa.”

Students are interested in degrees that are recognised overseas – a major motivation was the desire to study overseas in future as well as experiencing different teaching methods and new ways of learning. This also meant that the awarding country – rather than the awarding institution itself – was more important in opting for a TNE course.

In 2007 postgraduate students also said the third most important reason for choosing a TNE degree was the reputation of the overseas degree and that the qualification should be “recognised by employers”.

In 2011 these have been completely replaced by other considerations: that it is cheaper than studying overseas, and that the subject that the student wanted was available.

The presence and availability of an overseas degree, even if offered at a lower cost, is not enough to attract students.

Niche subjects that fit in with career plans

TNE students, many of whom were employed at the same time, were particularly interested in niche subjects, those that they could not study in their own countries, and which fitted in closely with their career plans.

“A big part of why students chose TNE over a local institution is the course itself. They choose TNE [courses] not because they provide them with more options but because they fit in exactly with what they want to pursue,” Malik said.

According to the report: “Older students will have already decided upon a career trajectory and if this path includes specialising in areas that are not well represented locally, they will turn, anecdotally, to overseas degrees that may offer better quality, insight, and teaching in the subject.”

Subjects of greatest interest to postgraduate students include business. “Local students often assume that the international outlook inherent in global MBA programmes will not be found in local programmes, thus drawing them to TNE,” the report said.

Media studies and journalism were also popular at postgraduate level, possibly reflecting a lack of appropriate courses in home countries.

And TNE courses fill other gaps.

“I chose this because it was the only postgraduate programme in computer forensics available. If it hadn’t been available, I wouldn’t have done another degree,” said a masters student quoted in the report.

A BSc psychology student said: “There are no appropriate local programmes for psychology. They either take longer to complete or aren’t very good. So I chose an overseas degree.”

Flexibility was also important. For those pursuing a masters degree it is “an increasingly common perception that it is indulgent to take time away from work and family to dedicate solely to obtaining what is no longer an elite degree,” the study notes.

“In this light, the double cost of leaving a job and paying for a full-time, on-campus graduate experience may be seen as unwise; hence the increasing interest in TNE.”

While the outlook for expansion of TNE courses is good, the most important quality measure for students was the amount of face-to-face teaching, which many students deemed to be ‘irreplaceable’.

More than 90% of students interviewed indicated that the biggest area of improvement in TNE was the student experience.