New AI tool matches universities for transnational education

Education technology and the explosion of remote learning are two factors driving the expansion and diversification of transnational education, with more and different students and universities from a range of countries entering the market. A new AI-driven data-mining tool called TNE Matchmaker can accelerate the search for potential institutional partners – from weeks to minutes.

Currently focused on matching ‘best fit’ higher education courses for universities embarking on transnational education (TNE) ventures, TNE Matchmaker (beta version) has a searchable database of 5,000 courses in pre-vetted universities in nine countries in South and Southeast Asia. The algorithm-driven database is publicly available and free to use.

“Over the next six months, we want to build up to more than 100,000 courses and add more universities and countries into the fold,” Lakshmi Iyer, executive director of education at Sannam S4, told University World News.

If, for instance, a university is looking for a transnational partner in nursing education in India, the tool will rapidly search the whole system. Since background work has been done on selecting appropriate universities and courses, the chances that a good fit will be found are good.

The data-mining tool was launched in London on 3 August 2021 by Sannam S4, a global education services provider, as part of a portfolio of TNE support services gathered into a new initiative called Global Gateway.

Sannam S4 called TNE Matchmaker the world’s first AI-driven data-mining tool, and added: “The tool accelerates the partner search process, reducing what has traditionally been a time-consuming and resource-intensive undertaking to a matter of seconds, with data from more countries being added regularly to update possibilities.”

The potential for its use looks strong. “It is estimated that more than one million students will be looking to access TNE in South and Southeast Asia by 2025,” said Iyer.


Sannam S4 was founded 13 years ago as an education service provider, named after the most widely cultivated and eaten red chilli in India. It become well known for an in-country representation model that it pioneered in India.

It is now a global business, with most of its 150 people based in India but also staff in Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Australia, the United Kingdom, the Middle East and increasingly in the United States.

Sannam also works closely with the China Center for International Educational Exchange to involve Chinese universities. As part of Global Gateway, May saw the launch of the UK-China Institutional Partnership Programme, involving 45 Chinese and nine UK institutions.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and much of the world went into lockdown in March 2020, Iyer said: “We started looking at all the work we have done in the higher education space and started thinking about how the world would be post-COVID.”

Increasingly, Sannam S4 started hearing that partner institutions were looking again at their TNE provision. “Some countries are assuming a lot more importance and there were some places where they would like to build new and nurture old relationships.”

Iyer conducts lots of surveys of staff, partner institutions and wider stakeholders, to understand the sentiments and trends in regions, including among students, parents and recruitment agents.

Australia and New Zealand, both countries that receive large numbers of international students, were the first to get hit by COVID because they lost their February 2020 student intake. “Chinese students could not come at the peak of the disease and then they closed their borders.”

“They were the first to start pivoting towards offering some in-market provision, for their students in China to study with local institutions where they had partnerships,” said Iyer.

“China is always a bit ahead of the rest of the world because of the sheer number of students that it sends overseas, and also China’s ambition to become a net recipient of international students.”

Iyer discerned the potential for more TNE provision within an international student market that would have pre-COVID involved students simply studying abroad for a degree. There was also an institutional trend of looking for new partnerships in South and Southeast Asia. “But people could not jump on a plane and go and do due diligence or meet people face to face.”

The COVID leap to remote teaching and learning generated expertise and confidence in remote provision, indicating a blended future for higher education – including in transnational education.

Further, recent years have seen shifts in internationalisation from historically dominant Western English-language institutions to a much larger, more diverse and increasingly confident group of universities and countries getting involved in international education, including in TNE.

Sannam S4 had started working with a Southeast Asia-based institution, helping to build a partnership in which students would study for two years in Malaysia and then move to a partner institution. “It took my team two-and-a-half weeks to help find a suitable institutional match – and that was just among our 70-odd partner institutions, not the world. It was labour intensive.”

Understanding that growth in TNE would only exacerbate this problem, Iyer and her team looked for a solution using technology, which resulted in building TNE Matchmaker.

“We were also looking at enabling our partner universities to build collaborations in three of the most exciting regions in the world – obviously China, then South and Southeast Asia. These are the key regions from where our partner universities get students.” That resulted in the development of new and the consolidation of older services into the Global Gateway package.

Sannam S4 provides an entire gamut of services, said Iyer. These range from identifying TNE partners and supporting partnerships, to providing regulatory advice and facilitating study hubs – physical spaces where remote-studying students can gather for a cohort experience – to remote student services such as tutor support and internships, career advice and so on.

The state of play in TNE

The pandemic and shift to online learning, along with mega-trends such as the rising dominance of Asia, and growing higher education internationalisation, have been transforming the world of transnational education, Iyer told University World News.

“They have made students and parents think about provision close to home that they can access. Second is the explosion of edtech – there are going to be more paradigms of higher education that will be catalysed by edtech providers.” For instance, there are MOOC platforms like Coursera or edX, that are spending more time looking at credentials and degree offerings.

“This augurs well for unlocking a pool of students that earlier would not have been on the radar of most universities, which have largely looked at receiving international students.”

In other words, TNE is likely to expand and become more ‘mainstream’ now that international mobility has been disrupted and online learning is enabling a quality remote TNE experience, upon which a cohort experience in-country and shorter international mobility can be built.

“This could be further catalysed by partnering with edtech players who are moving away from non-degree bearing certificates and diplomas, and are clearly coming into the higher education space, whether in the undergraduate or graduate market. And they are starting to disrupt.”

Also on the rise is working with local bricks-and-mortar universities to build opportunities for students to study a part of a programme in-country at a cheaper price, and eventually transition to the international university, said Iyer.

This kind of provision would work well in India, where there is a new TNE-friendly national education policy and government has been unshackling the higher education sector, giving local institutions more confidence to partner with international universities, which will in turn make local institutions more attractive to local students.

The days are long over when TNE simply involved a branch campus, or a university finding a local partner and having just one provision in-country. “All that has changed, largely driven by universities’ growing confidence in offering a meaningful student experience using technology – because that is here to stay. Blended provision will continue post-COVID,” Iyer added.

In a nutshell: “Growing numbers of students wanting to stay close to home while still accessing an affordable quality international education, and a demand for flexible delivery models as well as alternative study destinations, have all contributed to the rise of TNE.”