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Behind the numbers

27 January 2017
Raegan Hiles

Raegan Hiles

Head of Outbound Mobilities Programmes
Universities UK International

The reception to HEGlobal's research report, The Scale and Scope of UK Higher Education Transnational Education (UK HE TNE), was overwhelmingly positive. Respondents to an HEGlobal stakeholder survey last summer mentioned the value of the case studies in the report. Looking at the examples in detail, a lifecycle of TNE development emerged, and four key stakeholder groups recurred in discussion of success factors. We profiled these models at international events including the EAIE, OBHE and SIEM conferences. Here, Raegan Hiles explains more.

Data is important. Everyone involved in international work at universities, from strategy setting to visa advice, relies on data. We're fascinated by data in TNE - how many students does the UK have studying for programmes overseas? How does that compare with other countries? How does that compare with international recruitment into the UK? Can we spot the next potential big TNE host country using data?

But data only gets us so far. It tells us important parts of the story, but it doesn't illuminate the actual experience of establishing and managing TNE. It can act as a basis for some success measurements, and indicate trends to help us plan for the future. But it can't tell us the day-to-day activity that makes programmes meaningful, nor can it capture the nature of partnership working or ways that relationships are forged and sustained.

This is why our Scale and Scope of UK HE TNE research included case studies, and why our regular workshops always profile university speakers sharing their TNE experiences. By collating examples across the breadth of TNE delivery - established and new programmes, campus to online delivery, large cohorts to niche disciplines, and more - we identified numerous shared challenges and solutions, despite the very different contexts.


NB: new figures released by HESA for 2015-16 show another year on year growth of UK HE TNE, with a 6% increase to 701,010 students.

TNE timeline

Firstly, there are patterns in the life cycle of TNE development. The relationship between TNE sender and host country has often been described as parent and child. A series of stages became apparent through the case studies, and from those we isolated some features which made those programmes work. This is not to say that the programmes are at that stage now - the vast majority of the case studies are at 'operational' or beyond, else it would have been very tricky for the teams to reflect on the programmes' growth! Nor is it to say that these are prescriptive 'how to' guides for each stage: they are things to consider, and might or might not be appropriate for your TNE.


What particularly struck me about this model is the way that, once we profiled stages of the TNE journey, colleagues viewed the timeline. Conference attendees started considering the TNE lifecycle, and self-identifying at different stages. They then turned to look at what had worked in the next stages for other programmes. This sharing of experience is critical to improving and expanding the UK's offer, in particular to moving forward our maturity of management and partnership working.

TNE stakeholders

Secondly, there are patterns in how universities understand and work with particular TNE groups. I and other contributors to the HEGlobal blog have documented moves in TNE toward increased partnership working and equality within those partnerships. The case studies emphasise this, from the importance of 'on-the-ground' support in the host country, to recognising the impact of TNE on the staff involved, and to focusing on quality for and dialogue with students. All of these are more readily achieved through open conversation and genuine recognition of each other's strengths and cultures than an imposition of one country's ways.


What particularly struck me about the stakeholder groups which the case studies focused on, was the celebration of the calibre of TNE students. Many talked about the high quality and commitment of the students on their programmes, and their integration with and affiliation with the UK university. This was more involved than simple demographic analysis: it focused on understanding student goals for TNE, and developing programmes which can meet those needs without compromising quality or expectations. Understanding the TNE cohort had, in some cases, enabled rapid expansion of high quality programmes.

Such a sophisticated understanding of TNE students and their purpose of studying makes me wonder. Leaner analytics are much talked about in HE; for TNE, we're using them pre programme as well as during studies. Is that maturity of approach informing programme planning for 'home' programmes aswell? Several of the examples talk about a 'whole university' approach, but generally in the context of overseas operations being part of holistic international portfolios, rather than informing UK developments. Some case studies talk about bringing learning back home; it seems to me that this is the next stage for TNE and truly global universities.