Missing the point of transnational education

The UK’s Department of Trade and Industry's Education UK Unit was recently established to support the delivery of the Industrial Strategy for Education of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, or BIS.

It is in addition to the International Unit located within Universities UK, also in part funded by BIS, and the British Council’s own relatively new Transnational Education Service, which “aims to help institutions develop and effectively market international programmes".

Its “dedicated transnational education managers in-country provide bespoke support to identify the best opportunities for your courses, broker relevant partnerships, develop and execute marketing plans and establish a clear route map through the local legal and regulatory processes including quality assurance frameworks”.

Of course, I welcome the support British universities get from the British Council, and I welcome the government’s move to provide more support to universities in their international activities.

But it does feel a bit like the UK government has only just discovered this thing we’ve come to call transnational education. And it saddens me that in the statements about transnational education, students rarely get a mention.

Some might be surprised to know that it really was not very long ago that the British Council and even the British Universities International Liaison Association, or BUILA – the body that represents staff who work in international offices – saw the development of transnational education, and particularly British campuses overseas, as a threat to traditional international student recruitment.

They would not even allow Nottingham University to promote its overseas campuses at British Council exhibitions and education promotion events overseas. We’ve come a long way in the UK in just a few years:
  • • The British Council and the UK government now whole-heartedly support transnational education – or at least the government does if there is a direct economic benefit.
  • • We have seen, in a very short period of time, a huge increase in the number of international students studying for a UK degree overseas. (But do not believe the official UK data often incorrectly quoted as saying that there are now more international students studying for a UK degree overseas than there are international students studying for a UK degree in the UK – the data quoted is not comparing like with like).
  • • Transnational education activities are now recognised as helping the UK to maintain its international education market position in what has become an incredibly competitive environment. And, of course, transnational education is seen as an answer to the increasing restrictions being placed on UK universities as a result of visa and immigration policy changes.
But I also hope that transnational education is being recognised as providing a wider set of benefits to students, to researchers and to communities.

Not a British invention

In our excitement about today’s new transnational education activities, we have forgotten that the University of London has been running programmes around the world since 1858, and that students and scholars and their teaching and research travelled beyond national borders even before the University of London was born.

Higher education has always been international. The great scholars of ancient history and ancient universities were international by nature.

To quote professors Simon Marginson and Marijk van der Wende: “Higher education has always been more internationally open than most sectors because of its immersion in knowledge, which never showed much respect for juridical boundaries.”

The focus of the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' Industrial Strategy for Education is clearly commercial: market expansion for international student recruitment and tuition fee income to sustain a cash-strapped education sector.

However, there are more fundamental things that we can do to improve the UK’s higher education position internationally, including more international partnerships together with two-way student mobility, and less of a focus on the obvious direct financial returns of international education – the really big returns are much more subtle than that.

Moreover, as we have seen from the numerous examples of transnational education retrenchment, a ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ strategy may work in the short-term, but is not a sustainable strategy. Taking a long-term view in an era where short-term returns are expected is only for the very brave.

* Vincenzo Raimo is director of the international office at the University of Nottingham, UK.