Transnational education – The Shape of Things to Come

Transnational education is expanding at a “brisk pace”. But few countries are producing data or have strategies in place, and quality assurance and qualification recognition are weak, says a new British Council report. Still, three host countries – China, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, or UAE – are successfully using transnational education to expand higher education access, boost academic capacity, develop domestic staff and-or train and retain a skilled workforce.

Other findings include that transnational education, or TNE, is still not a policy priority for many countries. While incentives to attract foreign universities were helping to drive activity, there were questions around sustainability in their absence, and TNE – especially branch campuses – was not attracting foreign direct investment.

Further, there was a need for sending and host countries to together define transnational education, and the importance of a national TNE framework and institutional-level policies in host countries “cannot be overstated”.

The Shape of Things to Come – The evolution of transnational education: data, definitions, opportunities and impacts analysis was published last Thursday as the second volume in a series. Some of the top findings of the report were revealed at the British Council’s Going Global 2013 conference in March.

The first volume, on higher education trends and emerging opportunities to 2020, predicted that growth in global student mobility would slow and overseas delivery of higher education would expand.

But there had been little research on transnational education. Last week’s second volume aimed to fill this gap by charting the evolution of TNE, its impact on host countries, relationships between host and sending countries, and regulatory and market environments in 25 countries, to assess the conditions most conducive to successfully delivering TNE.

The primary author was John McNamara, and Oxford Economics assisted with in-country data collection. Two international higher education experts contributed: Dr Jane Knight, adjunct professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and Dr Rozilini M Fernandez-Chung, vice president of HELP University in Malaysia.


The general principal of TNE, the report said, is that students can study towards a foreign qualification without leaving their home country. “Programmes and providers cross national and regional borders, not generally the student.”

Transnational education is on the rise, with Britain providing a clear example: there are now more international students taking UK qualifications abroad than there are in the UK – 571,000 overseas compared with around 488,000 international students in the country.

In the report’s foreword Dr Jo Beall, director of Education and Society at the British Council, pointed out that the global education market was changing rapidly. Student mobility was increasing, but there were also many more destinations and modes of delivery to choose.

Differences in the education sectors, institutions and landscapes of particular countries had blurred, and countries that had been a source of international students had themselves become study destinations. “New alliances, both international and national are being formed; and private and corporate sectors are increasingly active as providers.”

While TNE was often associated with branch campuses, it could take many forms and be delivered through various modes. The research tried to create a taxonomy of delivery models, wrote Beall.

An analytical framework – a TNE Opportunities Matrix – was developed, to identify countries where the regulatory and demand environments indicated significant potential for TNE providers. Indicators were developed to shed light on approaches taken to facilitate and manage TNE, by reviewing national policies and regulations.

“This holistic assessment across 25 countries and administrative regions could also prove valuable to aspiring TNE host countries looking to create the conditions to emulate the success of others.”

The research identified three sending countries – Australia, Germany and the UK – and six host countries and administrative regions – China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Mauritius, Thailand and Vietnam – that were producing TNE data. But different collection techniques, reporting and terminology meant that the data were not directly comparable across countries.

The case studies of China, Malaysia and the UAE among other things looked at interaction between various TNE models, local culture and political contexts. They “highlight the importance for provider institutions to be sensitive to local needs and to understand the main rationales and objectives of TNE in host countries,” wrote Beall.

Main findings and conclusions

The research led to 20 main conclusions and findings in the areas of transnational education data and definitions and the TNE Opportunities Matrix, with the latter including the policy, market and mobility environments, and impacts on host countries. They are summarised as:

TNE data and definitions
  • • 1. Most of the many definitions of TNE are from the sending country perspective. “There is a need for sending and host countries to work together to develop robust definitions.”
  • • 2. With only three sending and six host countries and administrative regions producing data on TNE, data collection for programmes and student numbers enrolled “need to be significantly improved to promote better understanding and awareness of this increasingly important component of internationalisation”.
  • • 3. Available data suggest that TNE is continuing to expand at a brisk pace, both in terms of scale (programmes and enrolment) and scope (diversity of delivery modes and location).
Policy environment
  • • 4. Almost half of the 25 countries had no ministerial department or body with significant responsibility for TNE. “For many countries, TNE is not a policy priority and the focus remains squarely on student mobility. Where host countries have TNE strategies in place they are generally uncoordinated and fragmented.”
  • • 5. Development of education cities and economic free zones dedicated to education indicate that host countries are serious about TNE. “Incentives to attract foreign universities play an important role in driving TNE activity, but do raise questions as to its sustainability in their absence.”
  • • 6. Most study countries had regulations for the establishing of TNE programmes, but the regulations could be difficult to find and interpret. Regulations were not a prerequisite for TNE but were important for ensuring its success. “Passing TNE regulations in parliament can be a divisive issue in society, mainly due to its association with private provision.”
  • • 7. About two-thirds of countries had some TNE quality assurance systems in place. There were different approaches: registration of TNE programmes with the host country ministry; ensuring the TNE provider was accredited in the home country; approval or a licence to operate from the host country; or TNE considered as part of the host education system with all approved TNE providers quality assured the same as domestic institutions.
  • • 8. An improving quality assurance system was improving TNE data collection, “but data availability is still woefully inadequate”.
  • • 9. Recognition of TNE qualifications was “an area of relative weakness”. In most countries, recognition was left to the discretion of employers and universities. “Bilateral degree recognition agreements play an important role in the recognition of international qualifications.”
Market environment
  • • 10. There appeared to be “a positive relationship between economic development and TNE activity”. Economic growth would support demand for TNE in most host counties.
  • • 11. Services as a percentage of GDP and tertiary age ratios appeared to bear little or no relationship to TNE activity. “This is likely to be because TNE represents a relatively small proportion of overall higher education activity in most host countries.”
  • • 12. Mature TNE hosts were “perceived as having relatively high quality domestic higher education systems”.
  • • 13. The data suggested a positive – but weak – relationship between private sector involvement and TNE activity, with some notable exceptions.
  • • 14. Higher levels of societal development, as measured by the Human Development Index, appeared to positively correlate with TNE activity.
Mobility environment
  • • 15. While host countries were often both major senders and receivers of international students, “the same is not generally the case for TNE. However, countries such as Malaysia and China have demonstrated a propensity to establish branch campuses abroad. India is already very active in this respect.”
Impact of TNE on host countries
  • • 16. The importance of a national TNE framework and institutional-level policies in the host country with clear rationales, objectives, strategies and measurable outcomes “cannot be overstated”.
  • • 17. Many of the objectives of TNE were being achieved in the three case study countries: China, Malaysia and the UAE. Providing increased access for segments of the population was prevalent in Malaysia and the UAE. “China is currently using TNE for academic capacity building in terms of knowledge transfer from foreign partners.” Malaysia and (to an extent) China were using TNE for professional development of teaching and research staff at domestic institutions, while the UAE stressed the importance of using TNE to develop and retain a skilled workforce.
  • • 18. Economic impacts could differ significantly. “Malaysia foresees international student recruitment and TNE as a means to increase revenue while the UAE perceives TNE as a way to develop an educated and skilled workforce”. China did not appear to articulate economic return as a major rationale or impact of TNE – but “this may not reflect the situation at the local higher education institution level”.
  • • 19. TNE, and especially international branch campuses, were not attracting foreign direct investment in terms of physical or equipment infrastructure.
  • • 20. The social-cultural impacts were acknowledged as important but were “difficult to grasp and measure and warrant further investigation”.
There appeared to be a “complex push-and-pull relationship between TNE activity and TNE regulations, where TNE activity reaches a certain critical mass and elicits a regulatory response from the government”, the British Council said.

“While TNE regulations are not a requirement for TNE activity to take place, they have an important role to play in relation to registration, licensing, accreditation, quality assurance and recognition of qualifications and for ensuring the sustainability of TNE going forward.”

There was no one, or ‘universal right’ way for a country to approach TNE, the report said. “There are a variety of approaches. Each host country must develop its own path to ensure that TNE complements its domestic higher education system and meets the articulated goals and outcomes for international collaboration and provision.

“This will ensure that the outcomes and impact of TNE are relevant to local and national needs and priorities.”

At its annual international education conference Going Global 2014, the British Council will launch the findings of another study investigating the academic, economic, social and cultural impact of TNE on host countries.