Should the UK encourage more students to study through TNE?

Sixteen years ago, I assisted a British undergraduate student wanting to spend his second year at the university’s transnational education (TNE) partner in China. The franchised course in China was designed and delivered predominantly in English for Chinese students with teaching staff from both universities. The mobility of British students to China through TNE did not present many challenges in terms of teaching and learning, credit transfer and qualification parity.

When I spoke with this student recently, he proudly shared the memorable and extremely rewarding experience that this year in China had offered him and how he had become more culturally aware and sensitive, open-minded and resilient as a result and had made friends for life.

Throughout my career, though, I have only witnessed a handful of cases where UK students spend a semester or year studying at an institution’s TNE partner.

UK international education

In June 2023 Universities UK published The Scale of UK Transnational Education, using new methodologies and interactive maps or graphs to provide further in-depth analysis. In 2021-22 it shows a total of 558,085 students studying through UK TNE provision delivered in over 230 countries and territories, more than ever before, significantly up on the 510,740 students in 2020-21.

UNESCO data shows that there are 40,000 UK students studying abroad. Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data indicates a high point of just over 40,000 students studying abroad in 2016-17 with numbers declining since then to stand at around 24,000 in 2021-22.

Universities UK data shows a visible shift in TNE development over the last few years, such as a declining market in Malaysia, but a growing market in Germany, Greece and Saudi Arabia.

The UK’s international strategy 2022 puts India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Nigeria on its map.

Analysing the data between TNE and student outbound mobility reveals two types of international travel. For the UK’s outbound mobility, there is more horizontal mobility, with students moving to developed countries with a focus on mutual learning and collaboration. For TNE, however, there is a focus on vertical collaboration where students from less developed countries, in general, want to study for a UK qualification.

The United States

Currently, the United States is the top destination for UK student mobility (9,645 students), but it has a relatively small scale (8,935) UK TNE. British students are attracted to study in the US as a result of the shared language and familiar culture, as well as educational reputation.

In the international higher education space, both countries position themselves on an equal footing, focusing on mutual learning and collaboration to offer diverse experiences and cultures to students. So, it could be argued that there are limited pull factors from American universities when it comes to engaging in TNE collaborations with the UK.

On the contrary, the US represents a market for mutual mobility: there were 22,990 students from the US who chose to study in the UK in 2021-22, according to HESA data. As the US becomes an increasingly important market for student recruitment and diversification, institutional collaborations could become a potential new trend there, TNE or not.


China is the largest provider of international students and TNE for UK universities, accounting for 72,205 students in 2021-22, but there is no data reported on UK students choosing to spend a year or a semester of their courses in China via TNE provision or through exchange partners.

China is the largest provider of higher education in the world, with 3,012 universities and colleges enrolling over 44.3 million students in post-secondary education in China in 2021, according to the Ministry of Education.

Looking at the size of the Chinese higher education system, the number of Chinese students studying in the UK and students studying in UK TNE in China, there could still be potential for further TNE growth, especially as China continues its journey to internationalise its higher education to improve its quality.

Most UK universities have some level of TNE provision in China, but with large variations in size, shape and impact.

We have witnessed the gradually growing reputation and improved ranking of Chinese universities, through the government’s internationalisation strategy, central or local capital funds, research grants and favourable talent attraction policies.

More Chinese students with high academic grades are choosing to study in reputable universities in China as their first choice based on recent research, with de-globalisation and regionalisation intensifying this trend.

This could restrict the UK’s ability to attract the brightest students and could present longer-term challenges for Chinese student growth in the UK.

TNE provision does not present any language barrier or academic challenges, and, in most cases, the living costs are generally much cheaper than in the UK. Should outbound mobility be better sold as an opportunity for UK students, and could the increased presence of UK students overseas help drive further exchange opportunities in the other direction?

The European Union

Brexit in one way creates barriers for European students to study in the UK as a result of increased tuition fees, visa application issues, access or not to student loans, and a general perception of the UK as ‘not being welcoming’ towards international students.

However, this creates new demands for TNE in Europe to bring the UK study experience to their students’ home or a neighbouring country. A report by the British Council in 2023 shows that there is continued student interest in UK TNE, including in Cyprus, Germany, Greece, Malta, Portugal and Spain.

TNE in Europe brings significant language capital as well as other employability skills and experiences to students.

With existing healthy UK student mobility within the European Union, TNE development could help to promote outbound mobility and European student recruitment and reduce the heavy reliance on China and India of most UK universities, as well as help universities to diversify their student population and enrich the learning experience, as the recent report of Universities UK suggests.

International branch campuses and mobility

Of course, we have seen cases where UK universities actively leverage their international branch campuses to promote student outbound mobility. At Middlesex University, a UK or EU student on their London campuses can benefit from fees of only £1,385 (US$1,750) for the year they study abroad on their overseas campuses in Dubai or Mauritius; and international students only need to pay the tuition fees of the host campus.

Heriot-Watt University, with branch campuses in Dubai and Malaysia, also works with over 50 institutes in 30 countries to deliver its distance learning programmes to students in 150 countries around the world.

The University of Nottingham has two branch campuses, one in China and one in Malaysia, and offers University of Nottingham UK campus students a unique inter-campus exchange opportunity to apply to spend a semester, an academic year or summer school at either of their overseas campuses. Students who study abroad during 2023-24 will be eligible for a tuition fee reduction.

Despite these types of efforts, overall outbound mobility from the UK remains low. This begs the question as to whether there should be internal institutional promotion of these opportunities, or if there should be UK-wide promotion of study abroad, and also if we need improved monitoring and reporting of UK students studying abroad.

The benefits of mobility to TNE destinations

We all understand the benefits studying abroad can bring to a student in sharing and enhancing their international and intercultural competencies and helping them to become more versatile and employable in an increasingly globalised society. Internationalisation at home or internationalisation of the curriculum does not equate to the experience and benefits of studying abroad.

For the TNE project, instead of hosting students from a homogenous background, UK students joining the same cohort as local students can also enrich the learning experience of local students on TNE as well as the teaching experience for all.

Mutual mobility further enhances collaborative partnerships among campuses and promotes further academic and research collaborations among students and staff.

Professor Christopher Hill, from the British University in Dubai, says that “travel broadens the mind and increases our awareness of culture and increases our ability to collaborate across borders, through interaction, engagement and understanding”.

He says: “The UK has long been a destination for international students but should increasingly look outwards for mobility opportunities. TNE is a global endeavour and the advantages of studying abroad are innumerable; the destinations diverse; and the experiences just over the horizon.”

Embedding TNE

As we know, TNE comes with different types of collaborative models, from franchises to international branch campuses and with different types of degrees, from joint to dual degrees. It also covers everyone from undergraduates to postgraduates to PhD students, and the scale of students varies between individual students on a joint PhD project to hundreds of students on a franchise collaboration and thousands on an international branch campus.

Given the scale of TNE the sector has created so far, perhaps it is time to revisit and re-evaluate the impact of TNE so that it is no longer a standalone project run by a dedicated team and instead is truly embedded within the mission of a university and part of the teaching and learning for all students.

Overall, the number of UK outbound students is very small compared to the number of international students studying in the UK and international students in UK TNE programmes.

Furthermore, the UK’s outbound mobility (1.5% of UK students in 2020) is lower than the average for high-income countries (2.5% in 2020), based on UNESCO data.

The numerous reports speak for themselves. According to the Department for Education, in 2021 UK TNE contributed an estimated £2.2 billion (US$2.8 billion) to the UK economy.

A recent report also shows that international students studying in the UK made a £41.9 billion economic contribution to the UK.

While the figures for the 2022-23 academic year show £106 million was given by the UK government to support student mobility, this compares with the £128 million under the UK’s last grant from the EU-funded Erasmus+ scheme in 2020, representing around a 25% cut in real terms.

There needs to be higher strategic importance given to outbound mobility within UK university internationalisation agendas with financial incentives from the UK government as well as from universities themselves. When we look at international higher education, national governmental strategies are driven greatly by the national economic, educational, diplomatic, political, cultural as well as geographic context and significance.

For some countries, this would be about economic or financial gain; about opportunities to drive research collaboration; about increasing capacity to meet domestic needs; about re-thinking of mutual collaboration on education and research, driven by decolonisation, or about a mixture of these and other things.

Internationalisation and its drivers are a complex and multi-faceted issue. The reduction of government funds, the cap on tuition fees of UK students and the relative deregulation of the international market inevitably push UK universities to look into internationalisation as an economic driver, which means little priority is given to UK student outbound mobility.

Looking back to my original student and all the benefits his year in China brought him, it’s hard not to think that his presence brought similar, but further, benefits for its influence on the TNE campus, teachers and his fellow students while also painting a positive picture of his university and the UK that could rise above media headlines and geopolitical gesturing.

UK student outbound mobility should be considered a positive for the UK and its partners in all dimensions, including economically, educationally and reputationally. The UK ought to be spending more money on the Turing programme than it was doing on Erasmus, rather than cutting funding drastically, resulting in a £22 million gap compared to the EU’s Erasmus programme.

At the same time universities could also consider providing financial incentives to facilitate outbound mobility to create a more sustainable international partnership that is based on a more equal footing. How does it look from the outside when we encourage students from all over the world to come and study in the UK but don’t encourage our own students to study overseas themselves?

In a world where the UK is seen as less open, less outward-looking, less important and successful, shouldn’t we be taking action to demonstrate that this is not the case and show that we are investing in an international future?

Imagine what would happen if there were greater collaboration among TNE, UK outbound mobility or even international student recruitment. Perhaps it is time for us to use data to inform our decision-making to ensure that we deliver a sustainable international strategy that is beneficial to all stakeholders.

If we believe in international education, surely it is vital for the future of the UK and its own higher education that we improve UK outbound mobility? International study benefits students and typically improves opportunities for trade and exchange with the host country. To be global, we need to think and act globally.

Cheryl Yu is an international higher education practitioner, researcher and consultant. Dave Amor assisted with this article. He is an international education analyst and consultant.