Transnational recruitment vital for many universities

A number of English universities are increasingly reliant on recruiting international students through transnational education programmes, according to a new report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, or HEFCE.

It says around 34% – 16,500 entrants – of all international first-degree entrants in England transferred directly from UK transnational programmes delivered overseas in 2012-13.

Most of this growth is being fuelled by students from China and Malaysia – with more than half of all first degree students from both countries starting their first degrees directly from UK higher education delivered outside England.

The new HEFCE report, called Directions of Travel: Transnational pathways into English higher education, highlights great variability across the sector in the proportion of transnational students being enrolled on undergraduate programmes as a percentage of total international enrolments.

More reliance at low-tariff universities

The strongest reliance on recruiting international students via the transnational education route is at English higher education institutions with low average UCAS – Universities and Colleges Admissions Service – tariff scores. Many of these have seen a fall in direct international recruitment in recent years.

“Universities with high average UCAS tariff scores had a lower proportion of transnational students: 16% (3,200 entrants) in 2012-13, compared with 55% (5,900 entrants) for higher education institutions with low average tariff scores,” says the report.

Universities with medium average tariff scores have an almost equal split between their transnational entrants and those recruited through standard recruitment and other onshore pathways.

The relatively small increase – from 13% in 2009-10 to 16% in 2012-13 for universities in the high average tariff score group of institutions – was predominantly driven by students transferring from overseas branch campuses to the respective university in England.

Almost half of these transnational entrants were concentrated in a small number of universities – just eight had more than 100 such entrants.

Janet Ilieva, HEFCE’s head of economic and qualitative analysis and one of the report’s authors, told University World News: “The significant increase in the proportion of transnational entrants to low average tariff higher education institutions, from 48% in 2009-10 to 55% in 2012-13, can be attributed in a large part to a decline in international students starting first degree programmes through other pathways.”

Among those universities experiencing a drop in overall international entrants to first degree programmes, 22% of the decline can be attributed to a few institutions that were unable, in some cases temporarily, to sponsor new international students through a tightening up of the rules for international students coming to study in the UK, says the report.

“At higher education institutions with low average tariff scores, transnational entrants appear to have mitigated the impact of higher levels of decline among international entrants using other pathways, including direct recruitment.

“This group was the most affected by the small number of higher education institutions temporarily unable to sponsor new students,” said Ilieva.

The most high profile English university to be caught up in the British government’s stricter immigration rules introduced in 2012 was London Metropolitan University, as University World News reported at the time.

Mixed fortunes in South Asia

Countries experiencing the most significant declines in transnational entrants to UK universities were India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, where the decline was mirrored across all types of entrants, says the report.

And while transnational education students make up a smaller percentage of overall international students at more prestigious universities demanding high tariff entry, most of the growth from China has been at these universities, with most entrants coming from overseas branch campuses.

There was some decline in Chinese transnational education students at low tariff institutions, which the report says may be partly attributed to tightened regulation of joint and double degrees in China, mainly related to concerns over the quality of provision.

Demand for shorter study

The HEFCE report also highlights that the most significant growth since 2010-11 has been in shorter periods of study, particularly courses lasting one academic year or less, which grew by 24% (900 entrants).

“This shift towards shorter study in the pattern of entry to undergraduate degrees may be partly attributable to the impact of the global financial crisis of 2008-09 on middle-class income, making shorter courses more desirable for those who previously would have considered longer periods of study.

“Alongside this, an emerging middle-class in East Asia may be providing another driver towards shorter courses, which widen the scope to access English higher education for overseas families who otherwise would have been unable to do this,” says the report.

Growing transnational role in postgraduate demand

The HEFCE report highlights the growing importance of transnational pathways to first-degree courses for subsequent postgraduate enrolments.

About a third of all transnational students who started first-degree programmes through transnational programmes continued their studies at postgraduate level in the UK.

“Some 5,100 students from the population who started their first degrees in 2010-11 were continuing at postgraduate level by 2012-13.”

Most of these students – 82% of total transnational education entrants continuing to postgraduate level in 2012-13, or 4,130 students – were from China. “That represented 56% of first-degree entrants from China in 2010-11 going on to masters courses.”

Entrants from other countries have much smaller continuation rates to postgraduate programmes, with the highest proportions being Malaysia (8%, or 240 of the 3,070 total transnational education entrants), Nigeria (20% or 95 of the 493 students), India (12% or 90 out of 736 students) and Vietnam (37% or 70 out of the 188 entrants).

Chinese students in focus

Ilieva told University World News: “The growth in postgraduate students from China partly offset declines elsewhere and we can now attribute 45% of the growth in Chinese taught masters in 2012-13, compared with the previous year, to an increase in the number of transnational students continuing their studies at postgraduate level.

“This finding highlights the importance of postgraduate degrees as a component of student decision-making for transnational entrants from China to undergraduate programmes.”

Almost 3,000 of transnational entrants in 2012-13, or 18%, held a Higher National Diploma on entry. The majority of these students – almost 2,000 – were based in China.

New research area

The report is the first time this area has been researched by the HEFCE and shows that transnational education, or TNE, broadens the market for UK higher education, with evidence that it is becoming a key recruitment tool for international students. The study looked at a range of TNE options, including:
  • • Students progressing from branch campuses overseas to first degree studies onshore. In such an instance usually a double degree is awarded.
  • • Students progressing from overseas programmes delivered by English institutions jointly with overseas partner institutions which may lead to the awarding of double or joint degrees.
  • • Prior recognition of learning, where the English institutions have contributed to the design of a programme delivered by an overseas partner.
  • • Other forms of recognition of prior learning, where admissions to the second or third years of degree programmes are assessed on a case-by-case basis depending on students’ grades and other entry criteria. Most of the cited examples were higher national diplomas awarded overseas, mainly by the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Edexcel.
The HEFCE report found that entry from TNE provision overseas to first-degree course in England went up by 21% from 2009-10 to 2012-13, compared with 17 per cent growth in other international entrants.

But there are stark differences in the types and lengths of courses being sought by TNE students in different countries, with Chinese students seeking courses of between two and three years in length in contrast to students from Malaysia, where a majority are looking for courses lasting one year or less.

TNE mitigates fall from Nigeria

While TNE entrants from China and Malaysia account for an estimated 70% of the total transnational entrants to first-degree programmes in England, the next largest populations came from Nigeria and Hong Kong, which contributed 550 and 500 entrants respectively.

“Transnational entrants from Nigeria appear to have mitigated the bigger declines experienced in other international entrants from the country,” said the report.

The proportion of entrants to first degree programmes from Vietnam taking a transnational route has also increased significantly, from a low base of 18% (85 entrants) in 2009-10 to 38% (350 entrants) in 2012-13, the report added.

Madeleine Atkins, HEFCE’s chief executive, said: “Higher education has become vastly more mobile in the past decade. The number of UK providers delivering higher education in other countries has grown significantly, but we know relatively little about the impact of these initiatives on international student recruitment patterns and pathways.

“This report fills that gap. It highlights the key contribution of transnational education to English higher education, and the need for improved understanding of trends and developments in a fast-changing national and global higher education landscape.

“In the light of this research we can see the importance of long-term commitment and a strategic approach to transnational education. Some institutions have been particularly successful in this arena, and dedicated partnerships built on mutuality and reciprocity emerge as the foundations of their achievements.”

* Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and communications consultant who blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, and on his website.