TNE: the view from receiving countries

For many years, transnational education, or TNE, also known as cross-border mobility of academic programmes and providers, has provided new modes of study for students; opportunities for provider institutions to broaden their reach; and alternative strategies for host countries and institutions, to widen access to higher education.

There is no question that more and more students across the world are choosing to study international higher education programmes without moving to the country that awards the qualification. This growing phenomenon is facilitated by higher education institutions establishing branch campuses or delivering their programmes in foreign host/receiving countries alone or in collaboration with local partners.

To date, the majority of research, discussion and debate on TNE has been from the sending/home country perspective. Given the criticism that TNE is for revenue and status-building purposes for sending institutions, a frequently heard phrase these days is that “TNE is a win-win situation”.

This may be correct, but to examine the true impact of TNE on receiving/host countries it is necessary to get their opinions and understand their views. To that end, a major survey study was undertaken by the British Council and the German Academic Exchange Service, or DAAD, with collaboration from Australian International Education, and in association with Campus France and the UCL Institute of Education in London.

Customised surveys were sent to eight different target groups – TNE students, TNE faculty members, senior TNE institutional leaders, higher education experts, government agencies, employees, as well as non-TNE students, and non-TNE faculty in 10 TNE active countries in all regions of the world. The analysis of the 1,906 responses yielded some fascinating insights.

A different profile of students

An interesting and helpful outcome of the research is insight into the profile of TNE students. While there is no typical TNE student, the data suggest that TNE students are generally older than the traditional secondary school leaver entering higher education.

The proportion of TNE students with previous employment experience, as well as the high numbers studying masters and PhD level programmes, also point to a relatively older student cohort.

Worth noting is the high proportion of students working full-time during their studies, facilitated by modules delivered over concentrated time periods during the evenings or weekends.

The flexibility of TNE clearly has appeal for students with requirements to balance work, study and other life demands.


Understanding why students chose their TNE programme is fundamental to understanding their expectations and objectives. A clear message from students is that TNE is perceived as a way to improve their professional skills, thereby improving their career prospects.

TNE students also believe that employers perceive TNE to be advantageous when selecting job candidates. The two main reasons cited for this were:
  • • Prestige and status of the foreign institution or education system;
  • • The international outlook and multicultural experience of TNE graduates relative to local non-TNE graduates.

While students perceive that employers are predisposed to TNE graduates, more research is needed to ascertain employers’ awareness level of TNE, their perceptions of its value and their support for further education through TNE programmes.

Cost of TNE

The affordability of TNE relative to study abroad represents the most positive attribute of TNE for students. This provides evidence that increasing demand for international education can be partially met through programme and provider mobility and also highlights the extent to which the lines between TNE and traditional student mobility have become blurred.

On the other hand, the high cost of TNE compared with local academic programmes represents a main negative attribute of TNE.

Issues about pricing, affordability and how TNE tuition fees compare with local education options are important to students and institutions alike. In studying the costs and benefits of TNE, more attention needs to be given to differentiating between the various modes of TNE, such as branch campuses, franchise or twinning, distance education – including massive open online courses or MOOCs – and joint or double degree programmes.

Increased access

Feedback from senior TNE leaders, higher education experts, government agencies and employers suggests that TNE is having the greatest impact by “providing increased access to higher education for local students” and “improving the overall quality of higher education provision”.

The findings also show that TNE, in general, is not providing different programmes to those offered locally, which somewhat dispels the myth that TNE offers specialised niche programmes not available in the host country. For the most part, TNE programmes appear to be responding to student demand.

Lack of awareness of TNE

A surprising finding is an overall lack of awareness about TNE programmes in the host country. The majority of non-TNE students and non-TNE faculty surveyed were not aware of the TNE opportunities in their country and sometimes in their own institution.

Surveyed employers often expressed a lack of understanding or confusion about what actually constitutes a TNE experience. This revealing finding suggests that the full potential of these programmes is not being realised and that much work is needed to publicise TNE opportunities in the host country.

Despite this, all target groups believed that TNE graduates are better equipped than locally educated graduates across a varied set of specific skills – such as problem solving, critical thinking and international outlook.

However, while TNE graduates are perceived as relatively skilled, the research suggests that TNE may be only “moderately” addressing skills gaps in the local labour market. Specialised TNE courses covering niche topics were felt to have a positive impact on addressing local skills gaps, but overall, many TNE providers are offering programmes already available locally.

Outlook for TNE

Respondents were generally optimistic about the outlook for TNE and indicated that both the number of new programmes and the capacity of existing programmes will continue to grow over the medium term.

In terms of helping to build the local knowledge economy and producing collaborative research output, TNE looks well placed to play an increasing role in the host country. Economic considerations, such as the capacity of TNE to attract foreign-direct investment and improve local infrastructure, appear less pronounced and will largely depend on host country government policy and country specific circumstances.

The results paint an overall positive picture of the impact of TNE in host countries, especially in terms of TNE providing increased access for local students to higher education. But there is very little concrete evidence to back up these opinions, as few TNE receiving countries have the capacity or will to gather enrolment data on all TNE operations in their country.

An important challenge is the collection of data by host countries on the number and type of TNE operations in their country and the aggregate enrolment of local students, expatriate students living in the country and international students enrolled in all TNE operations.

*Jane Knight is adjunct professor, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada. E-mail: John McNamara is director of research, McNamara Economic Research. E-mail: For further information see: British Council and DAAD (2014). "Impacts of transnational education on host countries." This article was first published in International Higher Education Number 82: Fall 2015.