New directions for TNE after pandemic mobility disruption

Transnational education or TNE is in a state of flux, with universities in countries like China being more choosy about their partners and venturing into branch campus markets in Europe themselves, a conference on the next steps for United Kingdom TNE was told.

With competition heating up again after the disruption to international student flows caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, demand is expected to grow for global study opportunities closer to home and this should provide new openings for transnational education developments around the world.

The British Council is among those looking closely at market opportunities for expanding transnational education, the audience at the policy conference hosted by Westminster Higher Education Forum heard on 9 December 2021.

Kevin Van-Cauter, senior higher education adviser for internationalisation at the British Council, said: “We are looking at countries where we see potential to support capacity-building and help boost and internationalise higher education partnerships that can lead to other opportunities such as TNE development.”

Funding opportunities

He pointed delegates to funding calls and opportunities available through the British Council Going Global Partnerships programme and said: “When you look at what students want from TNE, it is very clear they are focused on their career development and improving their employability by improving their professional skills.

“We know students are keen to develop their international outlooks and intercultural skills and that the teaching methods used on TNE programmes are highly valued by employers,” said Van-Cauter.

He told delegates to the conference that countries open to developing TNE partnerships with the UK include rapidly developing nations in Central and Eastern Europe and he gave Kazakhstan as an example of a country that is “now very open to new capacity and partnerships after the British Council helped understanding by both sides on how these partnerships might work”.

Van-Cauter said Going Global grants were available to UK universities seeking to develop new partnerships and opportunities for TNE, and a recent focus had been to develop such partnerships between the UK and Egypt.

Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Turkey were among the other countries mentioned by Van-Cauter where the British Council is keen to expand TNE collaboration and he recommended that interested universities keep a close eye on the Going Global Partnerships website.

He also said older partnerships were re-opening and the British Council is engaged in Iraq for the first time in 10 years, and working with the higher education sector now that the situation in the country is more stable.

“We’ve got very strong support from the ministry there and funding is available to support partnerships, particularly in the Kurdistan region,” said Van-Cauter.

China seeking to grow capacity

As a traditional destination country for TNE, now looking to reshape and grow its international partnerships, China offers new opportunities – but it is important to understand where it is looking to grow capacity, the conference heard from Dr Jing Qi, a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Sciences at RMIT University (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) in Australia.

She provided a wide-ranging overview of the opportunities for TNE development in China when she addressed the online forum.

She said China was looking to relieve pressure on its over-subscribed universities and wanted to improve its technological prowess by encouraging more domestic students to go into vocational education after high school.

But it faces “a community perspective that vocational education graduates are not as high level as university graduates”.

The government is trying to shift this perception – partly by collaborating with Western universities. “So, there is a strong policy environment to invite Western polytechnic institutions and universities to collaborate with vocational institutions in China,” she said.

This will help China to build up its industrial sector and develop innovation parks and relieve the pressure on Chinese universities.

Dr Qi told the conference there were currently 1,200 TNE institutions and programmes across China at undergraduate level and above, with most being joint programmes with local universities and that does not include the growing number of joint online programmes.

Key areas

The Chinese government’s ‘Going Out’ policies towards higher education internationalisation are aimed at strengthening the country’s strategic development in key areas of the country, such as the Hainan free trade port and the Greater Bay Area, which includes the important manufacturing zone of Guangdong, the financial centre of Hong Kong and the Science and Technology Innovation Center of Shenzhen, said Qi.

The government is also looking at revising the approval process for TNE developments and accelerating the current process with an expert panel involved in the pre-application stage to prepare host universities to apply.

It is also encouraging universities in Hong Kong and Macao to collaborate with universities in Guangdong and maximise Hong Kong’s competitive advantage in having a number of highly ranked global universities.

There are a range of opportunities opening up, said Qi, but potential partners should be aware that the Chinese authorities are looking again at what internationalisation means for its higher education sector along with globalisation, liberalisation and Westernisation.

“There’s been a recent effort in China to distinguish internationalisation from the previous understandings, especially Westernisation, and the key question is: Can internationalisation take non-Western directions and how will that shape the student experience?” she said.

Among the challenges that Qi mentioned is the ambition to work with only the best foreign universities. Qi said the specific requirements in Hainan for TNE operations, for example, meant only higher education institutions in the top 100 QS global university rankings were considered.

“That’s a really high requirement, I think,” said Qi, “but it may suit the UK more than Australian universities.”

Closer to home

Looking closer to home, Eduardo Ramos, head of transnational education at Universities UK International, told the conference that after the COVID disruption to mobility, he expected more localisation of TNE, with students interested in gaining an international education but studying nearer to their own country.

“That will be favourable to TNE and the UK is working extensively on its new international trade policy, with the latest negotiations with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries”.

Many of the countries involved in trade talks with the UK have large university age populations, so again this should be favourable to TNE, said Ramos.

Asked whether the UK should be looking closer to home for TNE in Europe after Brexit, Ramos said: “Our analysis points to a phenomenal increase in TNE numbers in the European Union, and since 2016, the year of the referendum, we have seen UK campuses opening in Poland and Germany.

“But there are many other TNE developments taking place that are not so visible, such as York developing a partnership in Greece that is going to expand massively.

“Universities have become very agile and very clever in leveraging their existing and new partnerships in the EU since the referendum and many foresaw what complications might be ahead, not just to student recruitment but also research collaborations.”

Ramos said this trend is not going to stop and urged delegates to keep a close eye on the implementation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the UK and EU, saying: “As with any new trade agreement there will be a period of adaptation until both parties know where they stand and how the agreement works in practice.”

Unexpected barriers

He warned there may be some unexpected barriers to UK TNE in Europe and some very technical and regulatory issues to overcome, which may be handled at a sub-national level in countries with a decentralised form of government.

Asked about where the competition might come from in growing TNE in countries of special interest to the UK, he said: “From our friends in Australia, of course.”

But he also agreed that China was an interesting country to watch, saying: “At one point China did seem much more forthcoming in setting up a presence overseas and we saw a few campuses in the Southeast Asia region and the testing of waters in Europe with the Fudan campus in Budapest.

“From a personal view, we should not be too afraid of new competition in the market. There are enough students, but it has to be on a level playing field and not just for too many political considerations.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at