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A numbers game

11 December 2015

Peter Dickinson

Associate Director
W-ECD

The rapid growth of the UK’s HE TNE in recent years has caused university strategists, practitioners, and policy leaders to reach for their abacuses. Just how many students are there overseas? What is the scale of operation? What is being offered and in what format? How can we improve TNE if we’re not really sure what the baseline is? Peter Dickinson, a leading economic researcher looks at the growth of TNE, and outlines work currently underway to improve our understanding of the current landscape. 

Transnational education (TNE) forms a modest but growing part of the UK international education portfolio. The growth predicted just 2-3 years ago by the UK’s international policy players from the British Council in The Shape of Things to Come, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the UK HE International Unit in Horizon Scanning, and even the government’s industrial strategy, International Education Global Growth and Prosperity, aren’t just ahead of us: we’re seeing them now. In just one year of data reporting to HESA, offshore student numbers rose by around 6% from 2012/13 to 2013/14, with almost 637,000 TNE students reported in 2013/14.

That data is compelling, and is the envy of many other HE systems. The British Council’s comparative study of TNE Data Collection Systems indicated that the UK’s data collection for TNE is a mature system. True, university strategists and policy makers from overseas often vocalise envy at the UK’s TNE information. Almost ironic then, that here in the UK we bemoan the lack of good information about our outgoing TNE. 

Information relating to the UK’s TNE has been collected annually by HESA since 2007/08, published as the Aggregate Offshore Record (AOR). The AOR provides a useful indication of the volume and structure of international offshore education activity and the role of TNE within it, but is commonly recognised as facing issues around consistency, coverage, potentially skewed data because of the inclusion of inactive as well as active registrations, limited information about the types and modes of delivery, confusion about the data terms, and compounding this, general ‘patchiness’ in the data returns. 

Some data is better than no data. More than that, the AOR has, like a good wine, improved with time. However, time can also disfigure an imperfect product, distorting its true value. HESA is working with universities and with policy groups to address the well-rehearsed concerns about the quality of the AOR, but it will take time to perfect and implement any changes. In the meantime, in order to understand and support the growth opportunities for TNE, it is imperative that universities, sector stakeholders and Government policy leads have a reliable evidence base to inform their TNE planning decisions. 

A number of key data issues and calculations need to be reviewed, robustly assessed and methodologically refined in order to ensure both the reliability of findings and comparability with existing UK and international data. The HEGlobal programme has commissioned W-ECD  to undertake a major project to better understand the scale and scope of the UK’s HE TNE. The work has been designed to address the gaps in the data currently available, help UK universities’ decision making and strategy setting, inform policy and theory, and promote UK universities’ excellence in delivering TNE to overseas markets. The project report, due to be published next spring will include:

  • Data relating to the extent of the current UK HE TNE landscape
  • Analysis of changes in the patterns and types of HE TNE provision
  • A series of case studies which showcases the diversity and quality of UK HE TNE
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The first stage of this work is a census of current offshore degree provision by UK institutions. A group of policy experts and university advisers worked with the research team to carefully consider the types of data that would be both: crucial to improving the data landscape of UK HE TNE; and feasible for universities to pull together. The census asks: particularly important are sections 1-3, but any information institutions can provide for section 4 will also help to understand and promote the UK’s excellence in TNE to its greatest strategic advantage on international platforms.

The second stage of the work, which will commence in earnest in the New Year, is collating case studies to showcase the UK’s breadth of provision. It will pay particular attention to the newer modes of delivery: blended learning is by far the highest percentage of the UK’s offer yet little is currently available highlighting how this practice is used to tailor provision for particular institutional partnerships, country skills gaps, and student cultures. Already through the census, several institutions have outlined some really innovative practice for potential case study coverage; more are needed. They’re truly fascinating and demonstrate a range of activity that hasn’t been compiled previously.

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To find out more about the project and how to take part, contact the team direct by emailing either Peter Dickinson via peter.dickinson@w-ecd.com or Harun Baig via harun.baig@w-ecd.com.
It’s important that all providers offering UK degrees overseas take part in the census: the more responses we receive, the more robust the data will be. Some data is better than no data, but robust data that reflects the actual scale and scope of current and potential future activity is even better. 

The project report will be publicly available via HEGlobal in Spring/Summer 2016

HEGlobal will host a seminar about the findings of the scale and scope work on 8 July 2016, booking for which will open closer to the event