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Lessons from Thailand Conceptualising TNE

3 February 2016

William Lawton

International higher education consultant

As the definitions of TNE continue to challenge policy makers and data collectors, William Lawton asks whether the change is not so much in data categorisation but in what TNE should and could look like. Drawing on research conducted as part of the British Council’s UK-Thailand TNE initiative, he talks of a 21st-century TNE based on mobility: a mobility of people rather than programmes; and a mobility that is multidirectional rather than unidirectional. The British Council invites the two countries’ institutions to look to future partnerships, and is encouraging this with seedcorn funding.


Transnational education (TNE) is developing quickly, in terms of both geographical scope and methods of delivery. The reported numbers from the UK are increasing too: HESA’s latest statistical release in January 2016 shows some 664,000 HE students ‘studying wholly overseas’ for UK degrees in 2014-15, a 4.3% rise on the previous year and 32% increase since 2010-11.

It has also been argued in two recent HEGlobal blogs that such data collecting has not provided an accurate picture of the breadth and extent of TNE activity worldwide. Although our data are better than none (which is the situation almost everywhere else), there is consequently work underway to improve data collection on TNE and establish ‘a new national TNE data product that sets a global standard’. ‘Active’ TNE enrolments of about 360,000 students are already sometimes disaggregated from the full TNE dataset.

But just as data collection and reporting start to catch up with reality, the goalposts keep moving too. It now seems that the perception, abroad, of what TNE involves may necessitate a reappraisal of its basic definition.

The problem with TNE


A widely used broad definition of UK HE TNE is:

‘The provision of a higher education degree programme leading to a UK qualification for students based in a country other than the one in which the awarding institution is located.’ 

So what is the problem? It is twofold: first, that the principle behind this definition is unidirectional: we produce, they consume. This, however, is not really consistent with the aspirations of our prospective partners in other countries. 

Secondly, and relatedly, the definitional focus on programme mobility – specifically as a strategic supplement to student or staff mobility – acts as a conceptual block to the models of TNE that interest our prospective international partners. Those models are based on partnerships. Crucially, they incorporate student mobility with a view to balancing the lopsided flows in which they send many students to the UK but receive very few. As such, their TNE aspirations are happily consistent with the policy goal – shared by the UK HE sector and UK governments – of increasing the outward mobility of UK students.

This growing overlap between traditional mobility and TNE definitions into the transnational movements of the future has become a key feature of discussions about new partnerships in regions that the UK has, as yet, limited ventures in. Currently, the British Council is delivering a UK-Thailand TNE development initiative​ which aims to increase the level of bilateral activity between Thai and UK universities. The programme of work has many strands, but started with a survey of Thai activities and aspirations in regard to UK TNE, which was supplemented by short interviews with Thai and UK universities. This research, conducted in partnership between Dr Chris Hill, based in Malaysia, and myself in the UK, forms the basis of the discussion that follows.

As for the level of international collaborative activity by Thai institutions, data supplied by the Thai Office of the Higher Education Commission show a rapid increase in recent years. In 2011 there were 92 such programmes and in 2013 there were 159, comprising 90 first-degree programmes, 46 master’s, 20 doctoral, and 3 diploma programmes. China provided 60 partner institutions, by far the greatest number. The US had 29, UK 16, Australia and Japan 12, and so on. These numbers suggest that Thai universities are more active internationally than we might have previously appreciated. 

Thai thinking: Ahead of the curve?

The survey and interviews with the Thai universities send a clear message on the level and type of engagement desired with UK partners. All indicated an interest in developing dual or double degrees, including at postgraduate level and with an eye to developing existing research expertise and collaborations. Six of the eight mentioned joint degrees and none mentioned branch campuses. That last point is not surprising from the perspective of Thai universities: after all, attracting branch campuses is a project led by host governments, not institutions. From the perspective of universities, it is all about partnerships and this indicates a certain level of maturity and capacity.

Their expected outcomes for TNE engagement include items like curriculum development and internationalising the student experience. Revenue was not mentioned. But most frequently mentioned was mobility: inbound and outbound for both students and staff.

The prioritising of student and faculty mobility as core rationales for TNE is contrary to our traditional definition of TNE. But does this mean that Thai motivations and expectations are misaligned with, or lag behind, those of prospective UK partners? It is tempting to think so, even if some TNE delivery modes of course involve mobility. But further consideration suggests that the mindset in Thailand is ahead of the curve: it subsumes TNE strategy within a wider partnerships strategy. No doubt many UK universities do the same, so perhaps it is time that our conceptualising of TNE followed suit.

A delegation comprised of eight research universities in Thailand was in the UK in late January, as the next part of the UK-Thailand TNE development initiative. Discussions during the visit confirmed the study and interview findings: growth in TNE between the UK and Thailand will be most likely to succeed through equitable partnerships that recognise two-way mobility of people as well as programmes .

Conclusion and next steps

The producer/consumer definition of TNE is consistent with the idea of higher education as an export commodity, with targets for export earnings at both institutional and national levels. In crude terms, such a perspective is understandable and makes arguing the case for ‘sending’ TNE powerful. However, effective TNE requires partnerships of equals, which is not encouraged by an outdated rhetoric which implies more of a parent-child relationship’

TNE growth has been referred to by organisations such as the EAIE as ‘a paradigm shift that moves the focus of international education from mobility of persons to mobility of structures and providers’. It turns out that there has been a paradigm shift, but not one from person mobility to programme mobility. Maybe the real shift is from a 20th-century TNE export model, with slightly colonialist overtones, to a 21st-century collaborative model, which is a two-way street, which responds to the aspirations of prospective partners (and encourages outward mobility for UK students to boot). As such, new TNE is following broader currents in international HE, and it is good business. Hopefully the reappraisal of TNE data collection is able to reflect this.

The UK-Thailand TNE development initiative might be one of the first times that a full programme of TNE support actively develops the partnerships of equals that are so critical to success. The work continues in two parts:
  • UK/Thailand prospective TNE partnerships were invited to apply for seed funding of up to £8,000 from the British Council to support initial activity. The deadline for applications was 12 February.
  • A follow up conference took place in Bangkokon the 21-22 March.