More data needed on transnational education in Africa

Transnational education, or TNE, has become a fixture in higher education. Many universities see it as an advantage in today’s more globalised and interconnected world. The mobility of programmes and provider institutions can promote intercultural understanding, broaden an institution’s overall impact and increase opportunities for more diverse student populations.

For emerging markets in Africa, TNE may be a particularly appealing concept for institutions looking to expand access to education and offer students cross-border learning experiences. But a lack of reliable data on its current presence and impact across the continent leaves many African educators unclear about how to move forward.

“We’re suffering from a scarcity of robust data on a pan-African level,” said Jane Knight, a professor of education studies at the University of Toronto, Canada. “We can no longer only deal with attitudes and perceptions and opinions. We need data.”

Knight made the plea during her keynote address at the seventh annual gathering of the African Network for Internationalisation of Education – ANIE – conference, held in Ghana’s capital Accra from 5-7 October.

Research into TNE

During her presentation on the impacts, issues and implications of transnational education, Knight discussed a 2015 report that she co-authored with John McNamara, an economist and researcher, to raise awareness about TNE information, identify challenges in data collection and implement a more comprehensive classification framework that would help develop a university’s capacity for properly collecting and managing data.

Out of the 10 countries they analysed in the study, three were in Africa: Egypt, Botswana and Mauritius.

The report built upon a previous study published in 2014, also co-authored by Knight and McNamara, to augment TNE research specifically from the perspective of host countries, as opposed to that of sending countries. Knight and McNamara wrote about this study extensively in an article last year for University World News.

Another objective of the original report was to highlight the important role TNE research plays in properly addressing concerns universities may have generally about internationalised higher education.

There is already adequate research on student mobility. UNESCO and the OECD provide elaborate data on the issue. But Knight says that this information covers just a fraction of the global student population since a majority of students will never even leave their country. Therefore, it’s time educators also focus on programme and provider mobility.

“We all agree that student or people mobility has a fundamental impact on students, but if all of our internationalisation efforts are working to just 5% of our student population, we are actually going to have some backlash asking whether in fact international higher education is for the elite,” said Knight.

Why data is needed

Although individual countries may have sufficient national data on their TNE developments, a lack of overall data across Africa makes it hard for regulators and policy-makers to ensure a satisfactory level of education is being delivered.

Examples of policy areas that rely on proper data include “internationalisation strategies, accreditation and quality assurance, recognition of foreign qualifications, visa and immigration guidelines, access to higher education, and knowledge and research development”, according to the 2015 report by Knight and McNamara.

More available data could also lead to more international partnerships between programme providers. Patrick Hackett, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, recently highlighted the strategic importance of Africa within the global higher education framework.

“As for promising markets, I believe Africa is a region that presents new opportunities. Nigeria is already our number one market for online programmes and the sheer demographics of Africa mean that new types of provision will be essential for growth and prosperity there,” he said.

Better data on TNE in Africa will, it is argued, help African universities maximise their potential and attract more international partners.

Classification framework needed

To help institutions build more efficient data collection systems, Knight and McNamara devised a Common Transnational Education Classification Framework. The main objective of the model is to remedy what is known as terminology chaos.

Transnational education is often interchangeable with cross-border education, borderless education and offshore education. Not only is the use of a singular term inconsistent, but interpretations of those terms widely vary, adding to the confusion. The International Association of Universities gave a brief overview of this dilemma last year.

There are also more than 20 terms used to refer to programmes jointly designed and executed by two or more institutions. This chaos of terminology creates confusion among data collectors, especially when the terms are translated across languages. Cultural histories and colonial legacies also factor into the confusion.

“Not all countries in Africa speak English. There’s also French and Portuguese,” pointed out Raghav Lal, executive director of Transnational Education Africa and a member of the Lancaster University management council in Ghana.

“So there’s automatically a disconnect in the data because countries like Ivory Coast and Senegal send students to France. Portuguese students go to Portugal and English students go to the UK or United States. That in itself creates a bit of an issue because not everyone is looking at each other’s data.”

The classification framework is supposed to simplify the data collection process by narrowing down the long list of terms to a few consolidated characteristics and categories.

The framework, which was presented in a workshop at the ANIE conference, breaks down TNE into two main categories: collaborative TNE, which involves a joint partnership between the sending foreign institution and the providing host country; and independent TNE, which leaves the sending foreign institution with responsibility over most or all of the institutional operations. The two provisions are then broken down into four sub-categories, including partnership programmes, joint universities, franchise programmes and international branch campuses.

“We could not come up with one definition that would be appropriate in all regions of the world, so that’s why we’ve come up with categories and characteristics,” said Knight. “If we fall into the trap of trying to define everything, we make the framework so detailed that it doesn’t work.”

Some bright spots in Africa

Lack of overall data has made it challenging for researchers to assess the scope of TNE in Africa, but two countries in particular give the continent some hope.

In Botswana, TNE makes up 30% of the nation’s higher education provision. In Mauritius, it’s 40%. Both countries, which were analysed in the data report by Knight and McNamara, have data collection systems administered by a single agency.

This simplification allows data to be collected rather seamlessly and without the clash in terminology that might be caused by two or more competing data collecting agencies working with the same information.

And in the case of Mauritius, a majority of private higher education sector offerings is made up of TNE programmes, the report notes. This uniformity of data makes it relatively easy to compile.

“There might not be enough information available across Africa, but if [an institution] can get a sense of what’s going on in a particular market, it can be successful,” said Lal from TNE Africa. If it can conduct the necessary empirical research and skilfully interpret the direction in which a particular emerging market is moving, its efforts in TNE will pay off in the long run, he added.