TNE growth must go hand in hand with quality – Panel

The growth of transnational education, or TNE, must go hand in hand with an increase in quality, according to a panel of experts taking part in a webinar on the future of cross-border higher education.

With countries hosting TNE programmes tightening up on regulations, the webinar heard universities in the United States, United Kingdom and other countries providing transnational education were withdrawing from the riskier end, such as franchising and validating, and focusing instead on distance learning, branch campuses and joint or dual degrees where they have greater quality control.

The webinar on Tuesday, hosted by University World News in partnership with DrEducation – a global higher education research and consulting firm – attracted more than 950 registered participants from across the international higher education scene. A recorded version of the webinar is available here.

Dr Rahul Choudaha, principal researcher and CEO of DrEducation, convened the panel of global experts and moderated the discussion. This looked at whether TNE growth will come at the expense of quality. For the debate, TNE was defined as where the learner is located in a different location to where the awarding institution is based.

Dr Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin, deputy head of division at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD (Directorate for Education and Skills), said: “We strongly believe that growth can only come with quality and it will be difficult for TNE to grow if we have lots of cases of disrupted provision and low quality.”

Vincent-Lancrin, co-author of Ensuring Quality in Cross-Border Higher Education (2015), said the two big challenges of TNE were consumer protection and access to information for students on which institutions are accredited and how quality is assured.

He said New Zealand and South Korea stood out for complying with OECD guidelines for TNE aimed at governments, tertiary education institutions and quality assurance and accreditation agencies.

Reputational risks

Dr Nigel Healey, pro-vice-chancellor (International) at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, said there were reputational risks particularly with TNE franchising, where a foreign partner delivers your programme with their staff and facilities, and with validation, where universities essentially license another provider to offer their degrees as if they were the degrees of that university.

Healey is a member of a British government-funded research team auditing the scale and value of transnational education in the UK.

He said British universities, like his, were moving away from the “riskier end” of TNE to focus on either their own direct provision through distance learning or branch campuses and joint degree programmes, where control over delivery is shared with the joint venture partner.

He predicted a growing trend away from TNE franchising and validation centres.

He also highlighted the increase in market share of international students, particularly from China, who were starting their degree in their own country before transferring to a UK university for their last two or three years of study.

“A recent report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England showed that 60% of students from China began their degrees in China before transferring with advanced credits to a UK university.

“It is almost as if we are integrating backwards into China,” he said.

Much of the growth in TNE pathway and foundation courses was supported by private colleges run by organisations such as Study Group and Kaplan, which has recently opened a college in Lagos, Nigeria, from where students will move directly into British universities, said Healey.

Online education

An audience poll among participants showed that 41% believed online education offered the greatest opportunity for growth in TNE, followed by 26% saying joint and dual degrees, 10% saying validation/franchises and 10% citing international branch campuses.

Choudaha asked the panellists to respond to the corresponding regulatory risks with online education and shared the example of the United Arab Emirates education ministry warning that only 100+ institutions would be recognised and that other online degrees would be invalidated.

To this, Dr Elizabeth J Stroble, president of Webster University, US, said that “shifting” regulations and differences in regulatory environment between sending and hosting countries pose significant challenges for both students and institutions.

Dr Jason E Lane, senior associate vice-chancellor and vice provost for academic planning and strategic leadership at State University of New York, or SUNY, agreed and added a note of caution about relying on online education to grow cross-border provision.

“There are a lot of barriers to online provision and a lot of scepticism in many countries about whether it is valuable or not. The illustration of the United Arab Emirates limiting the number of online partners is just one example.

“It takes a particular type of student to be successful in online education. They need a great deal of self-motivation and self-engagement.

“There is also a tendency to value at least in part some sort of physical or hybrid experience.”

Stroble agreed and said Webster University had a long tradition of offering online education, including to those on military bases, and she had noted that many students doing online courses lived close to the university’s campuses.

“Seeing you on the ground gives people confidence and trust,” she said.

Strengthening quality assurance

Looking overseas, Stroble also pointed out that countries were strengthening quality control of cross-border education.

She said after several years of rapid growth of higher education in China, the country was strengthening its quality assurance systems and was committed to improving the management of penalties and mechanism for institutions to exit programmes that failed to meet the grade.

Vincent-Lancrin said: “Sending countries must make sure their provision abroad is quality assured”, but added that guidelines in countries hosting TNE programmes were often unclear.

Lane agreed and said some branch campuses had been caught out by changing regulations and had been forced to close.

He said: “What is somewhat scary is that more and more countries view rankings as a substitute for quality and are making really serious academic decisions based on the findings of various rankings.

“If you are not in the Top 100 or 200 you are increasingly being left out of international experience even though you may be a high-quality institution offering high-quality degrees.”

Choudaha said: “Rankings are becoming a proxy for quality and this can limit the choices for both the institutions and the students.”

TNE quality concerns

Lane, who is a member of the board of managers at SUNY Korea, said fears about the lack of quality in transnational education were similar to some of the concerns raised 50 years ago about private education.

“We know in private higher education that there are good and bad actors. It is the same in cross-border higher education.

“We’ve seen an explosion of TNE in the last 15 years and a lot of speculation about the quality which is unfounded,” he said.

Lane said SUNY had a large global footprint, including a branch campus in Korea, study abroad centres and joint degree programmes and he stressed the importance of “being thoughtful before getting into relationships” and being prepared to “get out if things go sour”.

“When you move into credit-bearing courses outside your own country, you need to make sure you are protecting students and the integrity of the degree programme you are offering overseas.

“You’ve got to go into it with your eyes wide open.”

Universities, he said, were never set-up as multi-national enterprises and managing campuses several thousand miles away inevitably has some difficulties.

“Just because you have a global reputation doesn’t mean it is going to translate on the ground.

“You have got to assure people locally that you are going to be there for the long haul and before your first students graduate you need students willing to undertake a great deal of risk. After your first cohort graduates you have more legitimacy,” he said.

To Austria and Ghana

As an institution with a history of transnational education stretching back nearly four decades, Stroble said Webster University’s approach was to adapt to local surroundings instead of trying to impose a purely American institution as a branch campus.

“We don’t call them branch campuses. We think of them as Webster University centres that happen to be in an additional location. This approach makes us a stronger institution,” she said.

Webster opened its first campus abroad in Geneva in 1978 and launched a campus in Ghana in 2013, which she called “ground-breaking”.

“We achieved accreditation as soon as we launched the campus by establishing credibility with the Higher Learning Commission in Ghana.

“In other cases, such as our campus in Vienna, Austria, accreditation was a gradual process,” she said, emphasising the need to adapt to local circumstances.

Final poll

Lane said it is hard to predict how TNE will grow because it will evolve, especially as branch campuses mature and spin off into something new. He said there may be lots of opportunities for stackable micro-credits and credits for acquiring skills as opposed to content, and institutions will have to look more strategically at digital badging – where students collect recognition for skills and achievements and they are integrated using verifiable metadata in a digital backpack.

Towards the end of the webinar, the audience was asked to vote again on whether the growth of TNE could come at the expense of quality and the results showed 46% saying ‘Yes’ – up from 34% before the webinar started.

The number saying 'No' rose from 35% to 36%, with the 'Don’t Knows' going down from 31% to 18%.

Choudaha said: "In partnership with University World News, we have shown we can facilitate a compelling global dialogue between international experts and make it accessible to interested academics and university leaders anywhere in the world. We will be looking to collaborate on many more interesting discussions on hot button issues through this online format."

Brendan O'Malley, chairman of University World News, said: "This is a first for University World News, but we aim to make sure it is merely the first of many insightful debates we host in partnership with DrEducation on emerging trends and interesting issues in global higher education in future."

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist who runs De la Cour Communications. He regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website.