Transnational Education: Growth, Innovation and Development

With the clear connection between international student recruitment, the opportunity to diversify our income and Transnational Education (TNE), Paula Sanderson, Registrar and Secretary (Chief Operating Officer) at SOAS, University of London, discusses the benefits of TNE and the development potential it encourages.

As we contemplate the potential changes that might (or might not) arise out of Augar, the potential impact of Brexit on EU recruitment and the long-awaited reversal of the downward trend in 18 year olds entering the higher education system, I’m sure that two objectives sit on almost all of our strategic plans: 

  • to increase international student recruitment and; 
  • to diversify income, reducing reliance on individual income streams or markets. 

There’s a clear connection between those strategies and the substantial growth in Transnational Education (TNE). 

Transnational Education

We teach many more overseas students through TNE initiatives than study at UK campuses. If we were to consider international students as a whole, wherever we teach them, 60% engage with us through TNE. Many of those students then articulate onto programmes in the UK (somewhere between 25 and 30%).

The Inland Revenue estimated total income to the UK from TNE in 2016 of £1.8 billion, of which £610 million came from higher education, with growth of 72% between 2010 and 2016. The vast majority of that growth has come from partnership activity overseas. Of the 693,695 students on TNE programmes in 2017/18, around 78% of programmes were delivered through a partner institution of through collaborative provision.

The Measurability of TNE

The narratives around TNE are mixed at best. There have been notable and expensive failures. Moving into new jurisdictions, working across cultures, understanding new political, social and ethical frameworks is complex. We are used to an availability of data through HESA that doesn’t exist in often developing economies. Complex analysis often has to be replaced with qualitative evidence, with strong partnership arrangements and with more than a little leap of faith.

There are criticisms that TNE is profiteering. There are examples of poor delivery. There are real risks, and as a sector, we are pretty risk averse. Sector media often prefers to criticise failures rather than reward innovation. But the income potential over time is clear. And when considering return on investment, we should never forget that many of us sit on decades, even centuries of investment and development in our home institutions. 

My own passion comes from the development agenda, the capacity building potential that TNE offers overseas. TNE, delivered well can have substantial benefits for the host country. Partnership provision increases access for local students with shared investment in the infrastructure, knowledge and skills between the host country and institution. There is often a diversification in academic programmes, with provider institutions bringing well-established curriculum as well as updated teaching and learning practice. Alongside curriculum and programmes, TNE often brings exposure to new quality assurance and qualification recognition policies and practices. 

Benefits to Host Countries

The economic benefits to the host country can also be significant. TNE contributes to economic regeneration and contributes to the shift to knowledge-based economies. When Malaysia first opened its doors to TNE providers, the country could meet only 7% of the demand for HE, the story is similar in many other countries that have embedded TNE as a key policy instrument in the development of their sectors.

TNE is a mechanism for widening participation, removing the cost barriers of travel and subsistence and students studying through TNE in their home country generally incur lower fees. Currency and talent is retained in the home country and where TNE is in partnership with a local provider, there is a revenue stream to that provider. Other benefits include social cultural advantages of learning in a new language and contact with new cultures through faculty and students. It’s my strong belief that those advantages flow in both directions.

The income generation potential and the multiplier effect in country are often overlooked, they aren’t easily captured but as we internationalise, as one of the most international sectors, those revenue streams and the economic benefits in region are as much a part of our sector as those reported in the UK.

Development Potential

Higher education providers have the ability to shape the future lives and perspectives of their students. Delivering higher education across national boundaries comes with increased complexity in how that responsibility is discharged in a relevant, ethical way. And the ethics of TNE are complex.

TNE is my great fascination. For the development potential, for the genuine innovation and partnerships that are formed. For a learning that is undoubtedly two-way. Like most of us, my energy comes from seeing the lives of those that we engage with transformed, and despite the challenges, I have seen that transformation most clearly when delivering a UK education overseas. And where else in our sector do you see growth in revenue of 72% in 6 years?


Statistics from HESA.