China takes top spot for transnational students – Report

China took over from Malaysia as the top host country for British transnational higher education (TNE), while Vietnam saw the largest proportional increase in United Kingdom TNE students, a conference for university leaders on 6 December 2022 heard.

The conference, sponsored by Navitas – the international university pathway provider – was held in London for Universities UK International members only and discussed the findings from the latest report on The Scale of UK Higher Education Transnational Education 2020-21.

Produced in partnership with the British Council, the new report is the sixth annual review of the state of UK TNE and provides a snapshot analysis of where, at what level and through what type of provision TNE students studied during the 2020-21 academic year, and longitudinal trends in TNE from 2016-17.

It revealed that despite efforts to diversify transnational education to a wider range of countries, the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on travel contributed to a 23.5% increase in UK TNE students in China which, at 61,495 students in 2020-21, overtook Malaysia as the top host country for UK transnational higher education students.

Malaysia saw a slight fall of 1.9% in UK TNE students, from 49,160 in 2019-20 to 48,460 in 2020-21.

Talking to University World News after the event, Kevin Van-Cauter, senior higher education adviser for internationalisation at the British Council and a specialist on TNE and education partnerships, said: “China is indeed still growing and the opportunities there remain strong.”

Influence of the pandemic

Van-Cauter said: “The increase in 2020-21 was due, in part, to the pandemic, with travel difficulties and lockdowns raising the attractiveness of receiving an in-person UK education, all while staying closer to home.

“There are also advantages for students as courses are cheaper and can be studied from China.

“Another reason for the sharp increase in 2020-21 was that Chinese authorities temporarily raised the recruitment quotas for some joint programmes and institutes, allowing them to enrol students who had originally planned to study abroad but who changed their minds due to the pandemic situation.”

Van-Cauter told University World News that most of the other target countries for British transnational education were also growing and the 162 higher education providers reported 510,835 students studying through TNE – a 12.7% increase from 2019-20.

Asia remains the region with the highest UK TNE numbers, with 252,845 students, which represents 49.5% of the total, followed by the European Union with 80,710 (15.8% of the total) and the Middle East with 70,400 (13.8%) and Africa with 56,475 (11.1% of the total).

Vietnam: One to watch

Van-Cauter said among the countries to watch is Vietnam which, while reporting a relatively small number of 5,165 UK TNE students in 2020-21, was the fastest growing in percentage terms with a growth rate of 36.6%.

“While the government [in Vietnam] is keen to expand TNE, its success has been limited to partner-supported programmes with significant regulatory barriers preventing the growth of online provision and international branch campuses.

“However, qualifications awarded by legally approved TNE programmes are automatically recognised by the government, and the labour market readily accepts and values TNE degrees and the Vietnamese government sees TNE as a way to respond to unmet student demand and to build international linkages in the higher education sector.”

Van-Cauter also highlighted Egypt – which hosted 42.2% of UK TNE students in Africa at 23,805 in 2020-21, an increase of 21.5% over the previous year – as having great potential for further growth thanks to the Education Ministry’s “strong support for international branch campuses with universities worldwide”, particularly in developing dual awards, student exchanges, research cooperation and joint projects.

Nigeria had the second highest number of UK TNE students in Africa, at 5,840, which represented a 31.7% increase on the previous year, followed by South Africa with 5,455 students, which was a 10.2% increase on 2019-20.

UK TNE numbers up in the EU

Despite the collapse in the number of students from countries in the European Union studying in-person at UK universities, as University World News has reported, the number of UK TNE higher education students in the EU since the Brexit referendum has increased from 55,595 in 2016-17 to 80,420 in 2020-21.

“Greece is the largest UK TNE market in the EU and new regulations have the potential to open up partnerships with Greek public universities,” said Van-Cauter.

Greece hosted the most UK TNE students in the EU, with 21,530 (26.7% of the total), followed by Germany, with 11,535 (14.3% of the total), which saw the greatest proportional increase, up by 24.7% from 2019-20.

UK TNE student numbers fell by 12.1% in Cyprus, but it still held on to third place among EU countries for UK TNE students with 9,970 students.

Fabrizio Trifirò, head of quality benchmark services at Ecctis-UK ENIC, the UK information centre for global qualifications and skills, told University World News that the impressive growth of UK TNE was reflected in other sending and receiving countries.

Risk-mitigating strategy

“COVID-19 demonstrated the potential of TNE as a risk-mitigating strategy to address drops in international student mobility, and more generally as a means to widening access to international education to students unable or unwilling to travel long distances,” said Trifirò.

He said that for the UK transnational education also offered a useful alternative for international students should the British government restrict international student mobility numbers as part of a mooted crackdown on foreign students studying in the UK to reduce soaring net migration, an issue about which University World News reported last week.

However, he warned: “Developing successful TNE operations take time, and returns on investment are generally lower than recruiting international students back home.

“TNE should not be seen as competing with, or replacing, the recruitment of international students to the home campus; it should be seen as complementary.

“Students who can afford and are willing to travel internationally will continue to do so, even as the range and quality of TNE options increases. At the same time, TNE operations can help raise brand awareness in-country, supporting international student recruitment at the home campuses, including through articulation arrangements with TNE operations.”

Quality assurance

Trifirò also warned of regulatory challenges facing transnational education in different countries, telling University World News there was often “a lack of understanding of how quality and standards are maintained through TNE operations, in particular in the absence of an international framework for the quality assurance of TNE”.

He also said “more information is needed about the local impact of TNE, including through data regarding TNE graduates’ destination and employment after graduation”.

He said that for English higher education providers, the Office for Students’ “risk-based approach to regulation and quality assessment makes use of this type of data” and the review of the Higher Education Statistics Agency aggregate offshore data is “moving towards an individualised offshore record, which should help in this regard”.

Jamie Arrowsmith, director of Universities UK International (UUKi), also focused on quality assurance when asked about the ‘TNE trends’ report and key outcomes of the conference for UUKi members on 6 December – perhaps reflecting the need to reassure overseas partners following the decision by Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) to give up its role as the independent quality body for England from 1 April 2023, as reported by University World News.

He agreed there was “a need to explain both the underlying principles and the distinct characteristics that support quality across the nations of the UK”, but added: “The quality of our universities is not in doubt.”

Arrowsmith said: “There have been suggestions that universities in England are no longer regulated. Nothing could be further from the truth. Overseas partners can be assured that any institution that is on the Office for Students’ register, if they have degree-awarding powers and university title, then they have met – and are continuing to meet – the very high standards required by the government and the regulator.”

Eduardo Ramos, director of international and professional services at the QAA and former head of transnational education at UUKi, told University World News: “The provision and experience of higher education in England is high quality, with the vast majority of providers operating well above the regulatory baseline.

“This provides a firm and fertile foundation for strong TNE partnerships, and QAA will continue our important work in supporting the quality of TNE provision with colleagues across the sector. Our TNE work is unaffected by our decision to demit the Designated Quality Body (DQB) role in England.”

Growing interest in TNE

Professor Andrew Atherton, global director for transnational education at Navitas, which sponsored the briefing conference for UUKi members, told University World News the event on 6 December was “over-subscribed with a pretty large reserve list, which was a very positive sign” of the growing interest in TNE among UK higher education leaders.

He said the key takeaway for him was that continued growth in transnational education by UK universities makes the UK a TNE ‘powerhouse’ globally.

He told University World News: “TNE is an innovative space for universities, with many forms and modes and opportunities to engage. There is no one size fits all.”

The Scale of UK Higher Education Transnational Education 2020-21 report said that most UK TNE students were studying for first degrees (63.8%), with an additional 3.4% in other undergraduate programmes, while 31.4% were studying postgraduate taught programmes. Students on postgraduate research programmes made up the smallest group (1.5%).

It also reported that 39.1% of UK TNE higher education students were studying through collaborative provision; 30.0% were studying through distance, flexible or distributed learning; 22.6% were studying while registered at an overseas partner organisation; and 7.0% were studying at overseas campuses. Students registered at an overseas partner organisation saw the largest proportional increase, up by 17.6% from 2019-20.

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