UK eyes European TNE growth after Brexit

United Kingdom universities are starting to look seriously at the European mainland to expand transnational higher education, or TNE, following fears that the number of European Union students in Britain could dramatically decline after Brexit.

European Union students are currently able to access government-backed loans to cover the £9,000-a-year (US$11,800) tuition fees to study at English universities and are treated the same as home students in terms of payback arrangements after they graduate.

But all that could change when the UK leaves the European Union following the British referendum in June, which saw a 4% majority in favour of exiting the EU.

Talking about expanding TNE

Raegan Hiles, head of programme at HEGlobal – a joint initiative between the British Council and Universities UK International, or UUKi – said she is having regular conversations with university chiefs about the likely impact of Brexit and many are asking about opportunities to expand transnational education on the European continent.

Hiles told University World News: “We need to see what Brexit does to EU students’ appetite to coming to the UK if and when they are treated like other international students and charged higher tuition fees and access to loans comes to an end.

“Transnational education is expanding everywhere at the moment, and I’d be surprised if TNE activities in the EU don’t grow.”

There are currently 125,000 EU students at British universities in the UK and for the moment nothing has changed, with Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, saying: “We have received confirmation that current EU students, and those aiming to start courses this autumn, will continue to receive loans and-or grants for the duration of their courses.”

UK looking ‘rather insular’

But the longer-term picture is a lot less clear, with Professor Michael Arthur, president of University College London, telling Times Higher Education just after the referendum result that it would be much harder to attract EU students to a country that now looked “rather insular and inward-looking”.

Arthur said he was worried that the cost of studying in the UK would become prohibitively expensive for many EU students, since there would be “no legal basis” for not charging them the same fees as international students from beyond the EU, which tend to be much higher.

Process of leaving not yet started

The process of Britain leaving the European Union has not yet been formally started and it is predicted it will take up to 2019 to complete.

In the meantime, British universities are not hanging around waiting for their worst fears to be proved right and many are talking to the British Council and UUKi about whether transnational education could help them maintain, and even grow, EU student numbers, said Hiles.

Transnational education takes many forms these days and involves higher education institutions delivering their education services in another country rather than the students travelling to a foreign university to study.

Big business for the UK

It is big business for UK higher education, with the delivery of British TNE growing five times faster than international student recruitment to the UK over the last two years, according to a recent HEGlobal report, The Scale and Scope of UK Higher Education Transnational Education, which University World News covered on 1 July.

There were 665,995 students studying for British higher education qualifications outside the UK in 2014-15 – more than double the 312,000 international (non-EU) students studying at universities in the UK.

The largest numbers of British TNE students stay and study in Southeast Asian countries and the Middle East, with Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Oman having the highest number of registered students.

Most TNE students study by distance and online learning or through local delivery partnerships. International branch campuses – despite their high profile – only make up between 4%-6% of the TNE delivery, according to the HEGlobal report.

Student numbers low in EU

Around 23% of British TNE programmes are on offer in the EU, compared with 28% in Asia; but the actual number of transnational students studying for British degrees in EU countries is relatively low.

The highest number of TNE students in Europe was in Greece in 2014-15, with 14,965 studying for a British qualification. Next came Ireland with 11,730, followed by Germany with 7,285 and Cyprus with 5,740.

Middlesex University is one of the strongest UK higher education institutions for transnational education internationally with over 5,000 TNE students. Their activities include a branch campus on the Mediterranean island of Malta, said Hiles.

The University of Sheffield is another active British player in transnational education in the EU with an international faculty in Greece – City College, Thessaloniki.

“Most of the UK’s TNE activities in Europe use the partnership model and Sheffield’s relationship in Thessaloniki has been going for over 20 years and now has 780 students according to the latest UK Higher Education Statistics Agency return,” Hiles told University World News.

Bridge to the Balkans

Tom Rhodes, the outgoing head of international partnerships at the University of Sheffield, has been involved with Sheffield’s international collaborative provision since 1996. He told University World News the Greek campus had become a bridge between the UK and South East and Eastern Europe and gave students “the unique opportunity to study for a top-class British degree in their region”.

He said: “With a main campus in Thessaloniki, Sheffield’s International Faculty also offers the university’s programmes in a number of other locations across South East and Eastern Europe, namely Sofia in Bulgaria, Belgrade in Serbia, Bucharest in Romania, Kyiv in Ukraine and Yerevan in Armenia.”

“About a third of the students are Greek at the Thessaloniki campus and we see it as very much a Balkan college with English being the lingua franca,” he said.

Like many of the early transnational education partnerships it came about as a result of pressure from private providers in the region wanting to improve higher education provision in South East Europe for local students to prevent a brain drain of talent to the West.

In Sheffield’s case, the UK university was approached by City Liberal Studies, a private operator in Thessaloniki with English language colleges in the region; and according to Rhodes: “It has set a high bar for private higher education provision in the region.”

Early pioneer

Another early pioneer of transnational education between the UK and South Eastern Europe was Vangelis Tsiligiris, who is now at Nottingham Trent University. He recently helped to establish a TNE-Hub, based at Nottingham, to share good practice in transnational education delivery.

From 2003-15, he was principal of the College of Crete, a small private college with 200 students offering MBA and bachelor of business programmes from Staffordshire University, University of London International Programmes and Charles University in Prague in the Czech Republic.

He told University World News: “TNE started really as a shadow activity in the 1990s when countries like Greece needed to develop their capacity for delivering higher education and there was increasing demand to have UK programmes delivered overseas.

“It was then that UK universities were approached by businesses and private education providers to set up franchises and validated courses in countries like Greece, Italy and Cyprus.

“At the time, it was not a deliberate strategy of UK universities to export. It was primarily driven by demand coming from offshore.”

What happens next?

As University World News reported, Germany and the Netherlands are among the European countries stepping up their game to capture a bigger slice of the TNE market.

That and the mixed messages coming from the UK government about immigration crackdowns on foreign students, which made the front page of the i-newspaper recently, create a challenging landscape without the major issue of what happens to UK higher education relations with Europe after Britain leaves the EU.

One of the longest established UK higher education operations in Europe is the University of London Institute in Paris; and its chief executive Tim Gore spoke to Times Higher Education, which reported that a number of British vice-chancellors were discussing whether a physical presence on the Continent might help to mitigate the potential negative impacts of Brexit.

“If European students are finding both a more difficult visa regime and a more expensive fee regime, then clearly we offer a viable alternative here,” he was quoted as saying.

Opening European branch campuses was one possibility, according to the Times Higher. But many in the sector urge caution as UK branch campuses in Europe would face competition from domestic providers offering free or heavily subsidised tuition and a growing number of courses taught in English.

Vincenzo Raimo, pro vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading, told Times Higher Education that physical branch campuses were unlikely, but UK universities may look at running niche masters courses on the Continent, especially in business, and make use of local facilities working with a local partner.

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.