Transnational higher education really needs a rethink

Can transnational universities provide an equivalent alternative to study abroad? At the end of August, the Chinese Ministry of Education officially issued an order about how to support international higher education students in local transnational universities and on joint degree programmes. This order has been issued for two consecutive years since the start of the pandemic last year.

On its website, the Ministry of Education stated that the measures were based on considerations related to the difficulty of studying overseas amid the current travel restrictions caused by COVID-19.

Six of the transnational universities listed have subsequently announced their plans for how to recruit Chinese students who held firm offers from Western universities. Besides the normal entry requirements, the prerequisite for securing admission was that offer holders must have been admitted by universities from the top 100 of the QS World University Rankings.

The competition for entering these transnational higher education institutions became increasingly intense as soon as the announcements were made.

Students posted queries and expressed their concerns on social media, discussing whether it was worth changing their existing offers to ‘go local’. Within the next 24 hours, due to the high volume of applications, the threshold was rapidly increased to those with offers from the top 50 institutions in QS’s world ranking.

Cases of, for instance, swapping a computer science offer from the University of Toronto with one from a transnational university were not uncommon.

From overseas to local studies

International academic cooperation in the higher education sector between China and Western countries has developed rapidly since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.

First came a surge in studying at various foreign universities and then the establishment of a few transnational universities (mainly Anglophone ones), both of which directly promoted the internationalisation of higher education in China.

Chinese students were initially regarded as ‘cash cows’, bringing hefty tuition fees to, generally, British or American universities. Gradually, their talents, diligence and academic achievements began to gain recognition from their foreign professors and faculty members.

As a result, a greater number of applicants from China have been receiving offers to study at prestigious universities in Britain and the United States.

Nonetheless, a sudden change has occurred since the start of the pandemic. In a special issue on English as a medium of instruction and transnational higher education in RELC Journal, the TESOL International Association recently condemned the hatred towards Asians, especially the Chinese, which had resulted from the belief that COVID-19 originated in a local marketplace in Wuhan.

What’s even worse, tensions caused by the neo-Cold War between the US and China have dramatically accelerated. I refer to an article in the summer issue of International Higher Education which catalogues how hostility towards China has increased in many areas of the US.

On the other hand, due to propaganda from the Chinese state media and others, the younger Chinese generation also view the US with suspicion.

Such mutual discrimination and xenophobia between the two countries is likely to have a big impact on overseas study. Parents worry that their children might get hurt mentally or physically if they study abroad, while students themselves are very much concerned about their health, given that they are more vulnerable if they are exposed to the virus in a foreign country.

Finally, strict travel restrictions imposed by the Chinese government have made intercontinental flights even more difficult.

While many European countries and the US have gradually reopened their borders and learned to co-exist with COVID-19, China has decided not to relax its policy on pandemic control. Any overseas returnees, including those from Hong Kong and Taiwan who can obtain a green code showing they are not infectious, are still quarantined for at least 14 days upon arrival, with some provinces even tightening this to 21 days or a month.

Because of these rigorous measures, many Chinese students who are studying abroad have not visited their relatives and family for nearly two years. Some have even missed seeing a loved one’s last moments, which is regarded as the most important event in traditional Chinese culture.

These developments have had a big negative impact on the attitudes and viewpoints of both Chinese parents and their children towards further education abroad. That probably explains why the ability to study at a local transnational university has become more popular.

Academic concerns

Although the option to swap offers has reduced some of the worries of those who were unable to continue their further education overseas, many concerns have surfaced from an academic perspective.

The first major concern is about the academic quality of transnational universities in China. These higher education institutions claim to be truly international, offering English-medium instruction (EMI) degree programmes at various levels. However, debates and concerns about English-medium instruction have been frequent.

On the one hand, some academic staff who were recruited from non-English-speaking countries do not have sufficient English proficiency to teach their subject, while on the other hand, Chinese students’ linguistic competence has also hindered the success of teaching and learning in EMI institutions.

Once these offer swappers discover that reality does not meet their expectations, their frustration will surface, affecting the outcomes of their studies.

Meanwhile, the issue of educational equity is also a key concern. In the past, different students chose different study options: some preferred going to foreign universities, while others sought study opportunities in Greater China, including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

Those who opted for transnational higher education in China were usually from affluent families whose parents were reluctant to let their children go abroad. Most came from second- or even third-tier Chinese universities.

However, the surge of students with offers from prestigious Western universities suggests that the number of those who traditionally applied just to the transnational universities will shrink.

As university admissions officers are now seeking so many elite candidates, the threshold will naturally be raised to a higher level. Thus, many students could lose the chance to continue their further education if competition becomes more intense.

The option to swap offers has been provided for two years and the results are yet to come. The first cohort of students are writing their final dissertations now, but I have not had the chance to hear their views about their study experience and other academic queries.

Nonetheless, my view is that the process of hastily swapping offers needs to be rethought and requires better planning. After all, it is not appropriate to suggest that transnational universities and their global counterparts are one and the same thing and that swapping offers will result in the same educational outcomes in the end.

Dr Yang Ke is a lecturer in sociolinguistics and director of the Research Office at the College of English, Zhejiang Yuexiu University, Shaoxing, China. E-mail: