British TNE up in EU – but down in older markets

The first fall in the number of students studying for UK higher education qualifications through transnational education (TNE) has been revealed in the latest trend analysis produced by Universities UK International.

Their report, The Scale of UK Higher Education Transnational Education 2017-18, showed 693,695 TNE students enrolled with 139 British higher education providers in 225 countries and territories around the world.

This was down 2%, or a drop of 14,220 students, on the previous year. But the total was largely influenced by declines in numbers studying with several of the biggest providers of distance, flexible and blended TNE – Oxford Brookes University, the Open University and the University of London – where small changes can distort the overall picture.

When these three ‘big beasts’ of TNE (which account for over half of UK transnational education) are excluded, the offshore student records, known as the AOR from the UK’s higher education statistics agency HESA, paint a more positive picture. Compared with 2016-17, numbers are up 2%, or 6,360 students, at the other providers.

Growing TNE in the EU

There were surprises in the latest data – with the strongest growth for British TNE in countries within the European Union, with numbers increasing by 11.1% between 2016-17 and 2017-18, an increase of 4,885, to 49,010 students.

The EU is now the third-biggest region overall for UK TNE after Asia and Africa – and the second largest to Asia if the big three providers are excluded, said the report.

International higher education consultant Dr Vicky Lewis told University World News that the rise in TNE students recorded in EU countries reflects renewed engagement by British universities anxious “to maintain a foothold in the EU post-Brexit”.

“Some are strengthening existing partnerships and networks and some, like Lancaster University’s campus in Leipzig in Germany, are doing so through a physical campus presence.

“If there is one silver lining to Brexit, it is that it has stopped UK universities taking their European relationships for granted.”

Dr Vangelis Tsiligiris, founder of the TNE Hub and principal lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, agreed. He told University World News: “One of the positives of Brexit has been a shift of focus, from Southeast Asia to Europe, and growing interest by UK higher education institutions to establish an EU base for their teaching and research.

“Several are looking at TNE in the context of their internationalisation strategy to enrich the experience of their home campus students through dual or joint degrees and mutual student exchanges.”

Greece has long been the biggest European country for UK TNE, with student numbers rising 41% between 2013-14 and 2017-18. But the fastest growing EU market is Cyprus, where numbers rose from 4,605 in 2016-17 to 7,260 in 2017-18. Germany and Ireland have also seen numbers rise sharply in recent years.

Some observers believe Central and Eastern European countries offer the biggest potential for growing British transnational education after the UK leaves the European Union.

Among them is Dr Janet Ilieva, founder and director of Education Insight, a research company specialising in international higher education.

She told University World News: “I believe the higher education environment in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Croatia and Poland is conducive to TNE expansion. And any changes in the fee status of the EU students, post-Brexit, and their access to financial support would have a huge impact among those considering coming to the UK to study.

“This will be especially true in countries with comparatively lower incomes. TNE offers the means to cushion these effects.”

Overseas branch campuses on the up

The TNE trends report also had a positive message about UK overseas campuses. Given the media scrutiny these often attract, it was interesting to see British university branch campuses abroad having the largest proportional rise in TNE numbers, with students at overseas campuses growing by 47.5% between 2013-14 and 2017-18 to reach 28,355 students.

That is still a relatively small share of provision, but the figure represents 8.5% of the TNE market when the big three players are excluded and grew by 10.7% between 2016-17 and 2017-18.

UK branch campuses tend to be based in specific regions, such as the Middle East and Asia. In the Middle East, for example, they make up nearly 20% of UK TNE provision.

China is top TNE market

China is now the top location for transnational education and accounts for 11% of total UK TNE activity overall, with 75,925 students. It has overtaken Malaysia, which had 72,480 students, or a 10.4% share, according to the latest data.

Among the successful UK-China partnerships is Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU), which attracts top achieving students from China’s gaokao exam, with many of the best progressing to Liverpool as part of their 2 + 2 years degree programme, or for postgraduate studies.

Professor Gavin Brown, pro-vice-chancellor for education at the University of Liverpool, told University World News: “We are not surprised to see China overtake Malaysia in this year’s TNE data. So many UK universities have strong partnerships in China and we have seen both the quality and quantity of programmes grow in recent years.”

XJTLU was launched in 2006 with just 164 students. Last year it had 13,000 students in China and has gone far beyond traditional approaches to transnational education by establishing an independent Sino-foreign university in partnership with Xi’an Jiaotong, a leading Chinese research university.

“A new campus will open in 2020 in Taicang, which will include specific ‘Industry Schools’ and co-location with industry sponsors,” said Brown. Eventually it hopes to be home to 5,000 students.

Hosts and provision changing

Malaysia is one of several traditional hosts of large UK TNE activity seeing a decline in student numbers. They are also down in Singapore, Egypt, Oman and Nigeria as TNE is affected by the shifting educational landscape, concludes the report from Universities UK International.

The latest figures show a reduction in students studying for an award from some of the biggest TNE providers while registered at an overseas partner organisation. There are also more UK universities with more than 1,000 TNE students – up from 44.5% in 2013-14 to 51.5% in 2017-18.

Collaborative provision now accounts for the largest contingent of TNE students, at 44.3% of the total – up from 27.5% in 2013-14.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He also provides English-language communication support for Norwegian, Czech and UK universities and specialist higher education media.