UK TNE has taken off in Europe, despite Brexit obstacles

In spite of Brexit and the challenges of trading with the European Union, the number of United Kingdom transnational education (TNE) students soared to new heights during the COVID-19 pandemic. The British Council is confident they can keep on growing as it launches a new campaign to shift the way UK higher education institutions and policy-makers approach European markets.

The European Union hosted 147 UK TNE providers in 2020-21 and had the second largest number of British transnational students after Asia, with 16% of the total globally, a webinar organised by the British Council heard on 15 June.

During the past five years, the number of UK TNE students in the EU grew by 46% and latest figures from the (UK) Higher Education Statistic Agency (HESA) show there were over 81,000 TNE students studying for British qualifications in EU member states during the 2021-22 academic year.

Decline in students studying in the UK

Those figures are in sharp contrast to the rapid decline in EU students studying in the UK since the implementation of the United Kingdom Brexit withdrawal agreement signed with the EU by the Boris Johnson Conservative government.

This led to a 40% decline in full-time EU entrants to postgraduate programmes taught in the UK in 2021-22 compared to the previous year, as University World News reported in January this year, with 1,400 fewer EU postgraduate research entrants.

More worrying was the 65% drop in EU students starting their bachelors courses in the UK in 2021-22 – the first academic year in which new EU students needed to pay international tuition fees and were not eligible for the subsidised student finance.

“The HESA data shows the number of first-year entrants from the EU countries to first degrees in the UK falling from 37,210 in 2020-21 to just 12,955 in 2021-22, a very worrying figure for the future, and even worse than many predicted.

EU entrants to all levels of study in the UK fell from 66,680 in 2020-21 to 31,400 in 2021-22 as the implications of Brexit on student mobility from EU member states to the UK hit home, HESA data shows.

“It shows why it is so important to include EU countries in any revised international education strategy,” Dr Janet Ilieva, founder of the Education Insight consultancy, told University World News.

The 15 June webinar opened with Helen Etheridge, higher education and science lead in the EU region for the British Council, telling her online audience of mainly TNE providers that UK transnational education was growing at a faster pace in Europe than overall average UK TNE growth around the world, despite Brexit.

She said the webinar was the first in a series and will be followed by country-specific events from September onwards exploring local opportunities for growing UK TNE partnerships in Greece, Poland, Romania, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria and Cyprus.

Greece is by far the most popular host country for UK TNE. More than 22,000 students in 2021/22 represent a quarter of the European total.

More than half of UK TNE students in Europe live in just three countries: Greece, Germany and Cyprus, so diversifying the reach is part of the strategy, as it is with international student recruitment to study in the UK.


To prepare for the country-specific events and an awareness-raising UK TNE roadshow, which will start this autumn in Greece, the British Council has externally commissioned two pieces of research.

The first will map the innovation environment in Greece and the UK and look at established partnerships between the two countries.

The second is looking at recognition issues in professional career pathways for TNE students and how to deal with EU directives for registering degree holders by professional associations, as well as recognition of TNE degrees for state employment, said Richard Fleming from the British Council’s EU higher education insights team.

Research and insights are being developed for other target countries, including an investigation to compare four different UK TNE models in Poland: Coventry University’s Wroclaw branch campus; the Jagiellonian University approach to using broad-based multi-partner agreements and joint, or double degrees; Poznan University of Medicine and University of Edinburgh ‘sustainable partnerships’; and the partnership between Lancaster University and Kozminski University to give a private university perspective.

Fleming said there was roughly an even split between demand for UK TNE bachelors and masters courses, but this varies county by country, with three-quarters of students in Greece on bachelors courses, while in Cyprus masters degrees make up a largest majority.

TNE students prefer in-person teaching in most EU countries, but two thirds of UK TNE students in Ireland are studying via distance learning, he said.

“So, no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the EU, and each country should be treated individually,” was Fleming’s message.

Branch campuses

Branch campuses make up a tiny proportion of UK higher education activity in the EU and host just one in 20 UK TNE students in Europe with the best known including Coventry’s Polish campus at Wroclaw and Lancaster University’s branch campus in Leipzig, Germany.

Dr Suzanna Tomassi, higher education specialist at the UK’s Department for Business and Trade, said growing transnational education was a key part of the British government’s export agenda and her department was keen to help the UK education sector find partners and investors overseas and help identify skills gaps that TNE could fill.

“The size of UK TNE is considerable and the [overall] value of UK education exports and TNE activities contributed GBP26.6 billion (US$34 billion) to the UK economy in 2020, a figure that has risen since in line with the UK’s international education strategy, which has just been reconfirmed with the aim of boosting the financial contribution of education exports to GBP35 billion by 2030,” she said

In total, there were 532,460 UK TNE students in 2021/22 in 225 countries and territories, with half of those based in Asia, and “education has now overtaken the combined value of exports of food and drink, pharmaceuticals and legal services”, said Tomassi.

She said: “The global pandemic had created a new wave of interest in TNE participation when borders were closed and students couldn’t travel”.

Challenges on the supply side

However, a note of caution was introduced by Ilieva, a passionate believer in the benefit of TNE.

She produced a report, titled EU demand for UK Transnational Education – Opportunities and challenges for the British Council with three other TNE experts, Pat Killingly, Vangelis Tsiligiris and Rebecca Finlayson, earlier this year

While this found high overall satisfaction with UK TNE in Europe, particularly for the impact the programme had on students’ future professional lives and strong demand among older European students and EU students used to studying in another member state and those looking for more affordable ways to earn a UK qualification than studying in the UK after Brexit, there are significant challenges on supply side.

“This mainly stems from the UK’s change in status from EU to non-EU member,” said Ilieva.

Student visas are an immediate challenge for any mobility components of TNE courses involving coming to the UK for part of the course, with confusion about what is required, and processing delays in both the UK and European countries, said Ilieva.

“There are particular problems with internship visas, both because of the length of work placements in companies and because of subsistence and other payments made to students, which might have tax implications,” she said.

“The issue of internship visas is unresolved and has resulted in some European partners looking for non-UK partners for the future.

“The legislation on work regulations is another significant challenge affecting UK university staff teaching UK courses in different countries. Since the UK is no longer part of the EU, this has become highly complex and differs across countries.

“Untangling this is time-consuming and expensive, with one university hiring specialist lawyers to provide advice.”

Ilieva said not being able to use UK academic experts to teach courses is seen as a “reputational risk” and the regulatory processes for franchised and validated programmes is “particularly unclear in some countries like Spain”.

Sustainable strategy

“Quality assurance requirements are also often unclear, and regions and states may interpret these differently from one country to another and between federal states in Germany,” she said.

So, while there are opportunities and demand to grow UK TNE in the EU, it is not going to be without challenges and some UK universities have actually pulled back from operating in Europe, as illustrated by the recent decision by the University of Kent to close its Brussels campus, as reported by University World News.

However, the overall the mood is optimistic, with the report from Ilieva and her team pointing out there is a market of over 18 million European students on the UK’s doorstep, but it needs targeting with the same effort and resources as other major international markets and TNE should form a key part of any sustainable strategy.

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