Transnational education – A classification framework

Nearly 100 policy-makers and higher education experts from 30 countries contributed to a new classification framework and data collection guidelines for transnational education – released at Going Global 2017 in London – that will help countries gather data to inform policies, regulations and enrolment planning.

Transnational Education – A classification framework and data collection guidelines for international programme and provider mobility, was conceived and co-funded by the British Council and the German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD, with support from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

The report authors are Dr Jane Knight and John McNamara, and they define transnational education succinctly as “the mobility of higher education programmes and institutions/providers across international borders”.

The classification framework is built around two principles. The first differentiates between ‘collaborative’ and ‘independent’ transnational provision, and the second creates six categories that represent different modes of international programme and provider mobility and are linked to the ‘independent’ or ‘collaborative’ approaches.

The framework is aligned to data collection guidelines aimed at helping countries to develop a transnational education data request instrument, the report says.

An international advisory working group was convened, with experts from host and sending countries, to help with pilot testing, consulting with stakeholders and commenting on the framework and guidelines. The research was also informed by workshops, presentations and consultations around the world.

The support of the nearly 100 policy-makers and experts built significant momentum for the project and intense debate, feedback, shared knowledge and advice, the report says.

“We believe the guidelines thus produced in a truly international effort are a real milestone in our ongoing quest to understand transnational education on a global scale.”


British Council and DAAD collaboration over the past three years produced two previous studies. The first revealed that host countries saw benefits to transnational education but there was little hard data, and the second confirmed the data problem.

In the new report’s preface Dr Jo Beall, director of education and society for the British Council, and Dr Anette Pieper, DAAD’s director of projects, write:

“A key finding was that there is a multitude of different terms used to describe the same type of programme and provider mobility, and that this ‘terminology chaos’ makes it challenging to collect comparable and reliable transnational education data across countries and to develop appropriate policies and regulations for transnational education at the national level.

“These insights led to the current project.”

The need for a framework and guidelines

As international academic mobility increases in scope, scale and importance, so does confusion about what the terms cross-border, transnational, borderless and offshore education actually mean, write Knight and McNamara.

There is also a serious lack of reliable information regarding the nature and extent of transnational education provision in terms of enrolments and characteristics of delivery.

“Over 40 different terms are being used to describe international programme and provider mobility.” Also, terms are used differently. “In short there is mass confusion about what is meant by an international branch campus, franchise programmes, joint-double degree programmes, distance education and joint universities.”

The implications of this chaos are “many and significant”.

Lack of a shared understanding and use of transnational education terms across countries raises issues related to quality assurance and qualification recognition, registration of new providers or courses, completion rates, the collection of programme-level and enrolment data, and comparisons of transnational education provision within and across countries.

Knight and McNamara introduce the term ‘international programme and provider mobility’ to indicate that transnational education involves programmes and providers moving across national borders to deliver higher education and credentials to students in their home or neighbouring countries, instead of students moving to the country of a foreign university for an academic programme.

It is critical to recognise that there are different rationales, impacts, policies and regulations for sending and for host countries, they write. “To date, more attention has been given to sending countries’ perspectives and less to host countries.”

While the report is relevant to sending and host countries, it highlights the importance of transnational education for host countries, especially those in early stages of receiving or transnational education with foreign sending higher education institutions.

Most host countries – especially those more recently transnational education active – do not have appropriate registration of foreign programmes or data collection. “This means that there is insufficient information to effectively include transnational education provision in their higher education planning processes, policies and regulatory functions.”

Organising principles and categories

One of the objectives of the framework is to provide clarity and common interpretations of different modes and categories of transnational education, says the report.

The framework has two organising principles and six categories of provision.

The first principle differentiates between ‘collaborative’ and ‘independent’ transnational education provision, and has important implications for host and sending country regulations and policies related to registration, quality assurance, awarding of qualifications, degree recognition, responsibility for the curriculum and transnational education data collection.

The second principle relates to six distinct categories of programme, which represent different modes of international programme and provider delivery and are aligned to the independent or collaborative approaches.

The three categories under independent provision are franchise programmes, international branch campus, and self-study distance education. The three categories under collaborative provision are transnational education partnership programmes, joint universities or colleges, and distance education with a local academic transnational education partner.

Franchise arrangements that are primarily exported by a sending country are differentiated from transnational education partnership programmes based on collaboration between host and sending providers.

The international branch campus, which is usually a satellite of a parent institution in the sending country, is differentiated from a joint university co-developed by sending and host country providers.

And independent self-study distance education – provided solely by the foreign sending institution with no support provided locally – is differentiated from collaborative distance education with a local academic transnational education partner.

“While there are always exceptions, the overall logic is that for independent transnational education provision the sending country has primary responsibility for the curriculum, the qualification awarded, and external quality assurance. For collaborative transnational education provision both the host and sending countries share or have joint responsibility for these three aspects of transnational education programmes.”

For the framework to be useful, write Knight and McNamara, it must be robust enough to differentiate between each of the six primary categories but flexible enough to acknowledge individual contexts and regulations and stages of transnational education active countries.

“Thus the framework is not a top-down imposed structure but rather a foundation and guideline to help countries have clarity on the different modes of transnational education provision.” They stress, however, that while use of the framework will vary its content will not.

Data collection guidelines

Key challenges for collecting transnational education data, according to the report, include: lack of a clear strategic approach at national policy level, inability of countries to classify the various categories of transnational education activity, and use of outdated or poorly structured data request templates.

The classification framework is aligned to data collection guidelines aimed at assisting countries to develop a transnational education data request instrument “in order to collect robust, consistent and internationally comparable transnational education data”.

A series of questions is laid out in table format, from the perspectives of host and sending countries, data collection agencies and institutions providing the data.

The first step for any data collection agency is to decide which institutions will be asked to complete the transnational education data request. There are different considerations for host and sending countries, so the study developed a separate data table for each.

Knight and McNamara stress the need to balance the amount and complexity of data requested with the capacity of institutions to provide the data. And so the guidelines propose ‘core’ data that is a priority to collect, and additional ‘optional’ data.

A transnational education programme’s title, field of education, level, country and institutions awarding the qualification and total number of students are proposed as core data. In addition, each programme should be classified as belonging to one of the six framework categories.

The ‘optional’ data proposed, at least for countries at an early stage of collecting transnational education data, is organised in terms of a programme data module, and an enrolment data module.

Additional programme data is of interest to regulatory bodies and enrolment data is of particular interest to ministries interested in understanding the scale and impacts of transnational education activity as well as a profile of transnational education students and their graduation and employment outcomes.

“A key principle of the guidelines is that data collecting agencies will decide what data to collect, what they consider as the basic level of data to collect, and ultimately how the data request can be customised to the local higher education environment and context.”

International programme and provider mobility, says the report, “is at an important juncture”.

Governments would benefit greatly from better understanding this important dimension of internationalisation, so that its challenges and opportunities can be managed “and its potential evenly shared across societies, higher education systems and the broad student body".

“The concept of programmes and providers moving across national borders should eventually be as well understood as international student mobility.”