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The future of TNE "with Chinese characteristics"

21 April 2016
Rod Bristow

Professor Nigel Healey

Vice-Chancellor
Fiji National University

At China's 13th National Congress in 1987, Premier Zhao Ziyang introduced the concept of "Socialism with Chinese characteristics," by which he meant a centrally-planned economy adapted to the special circumstances of Chinese society.

Last month, the 2016 UK-China Education Policy Week in Beijing brought together experts from both countries to explore closer cooperation in education, including the development of Sino-UK transnational partnerships. It culminated with a workshop on Joint Quality Assurance for UK-China Transnational Education Programmes, leading Professor Nigel Healey to raise the issue of whether we may be moving into a new era of "transnational education with Chinese characteristics."

HEGlobal defines transnational education (TNE) as "education delivered in a country other than the country in which the awarding institution is based, eg, students based in country Y studying for a degree from a university in country Z." The current Sino-UK TNE partnerships all conform to this definition.

The University of Nottingham Ningbo, for example, is a joint venture between the University of Nottingham and the Wanli Education Group. It is a private Chinese university employing its own academic and administrative staff, but critically it delivers the University of Nottingham curriculum and its graduates are awarded a University of Nottingham degree (ie, students in country Y get a degree from a university in country Z).

Things are changing though, and there is a clear shift in the dynamic of TNE delivery, especially in partnerships. Bill Lawton recently highlighted the need for more equitable partnership approaches in his blog about Thailand, and the forthcoming HEGlobal study into The Scale and Scope of UK HE TNE will include case studies showing the breadth and diversity of TNE models in operation.

Despite this movement in some territories, the pace and type of change in TNE is not the same everywhere. The recent UK-China Education Policy Week included discussion about meeting the challenges of assuring the quality of Sino-UK TNE programmes.  At the heart is the need for a Sino-UK programme to meet two different national accreditation requirements. To meet the expectations of the standards of a UK degree, whether at home or overseas, UK universities have to satisfy the expectations in the UK's Quality Code for Higher Education. These stipulate that the "principal responsibility of the degree-awarding body is for the academic standards of any awards granted in its name… [and that it has] ultimate responsibility for the quality of learning opportunities provided."

A Sino-UK programme must also satisfy the requirements of the host country's regulatory bodies.  In China, responsibility for authorizing a transnational programme is shared between the Ministry of Education's China Academic Degrees and Graduate Education Development Centre (CDGDC) and the China Education Association for International Exchange (CEAIE). Inevitably, the Chinese approach to quality assurance differs from the QAA's, with the former putting a heavier reliance on inputs (teaching contact time), the curriculum and required courses (eg, physical education and political economy) and the latter focused on learner outcomes.

The QAA has done an admirable job of liaising closely with its "sister" regulatory bodies in the key host markets for UK TNE, notably in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and, of course, China. Through encouraging close cooperation with partner regulators, QAA's work internationally helps UK universities to continue to satisfy the requirements of both their home and host regulators in their TNE programmes.

In the absence of such cooperation, there is a danger that as the higher education systems of host countries develop and mature, their quality assurance requirements could evolve to become incompatible with those of the UK. In extremis, the UK university's TNE partnership could have to offer a locally-compliant degree in the host country and could no longer award a UK degree.

It is a moot point, notwithstanding the excellent work of the QAA, whether the national quality assurance systems of the UK and host countries can remain sufficiently aligned for UK universities to offer UK degrees through their TNE partnerships indefinitely. It is also questionable whether this is even desirable in the long term. TNE programmes are often criticized for being colonial in nature. A Sino-UK programme that allowed the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment to evolve to meet local needs, and in so doing transformed the programme from a UK to a Chinese degree, would arguably be a much more genuine two-way partnership.

At present, there seems little appetite from the Chinese side to move to this end point; Sino-UK partnerships are sometimes suggested to be a means of transferring UK pedagogy and student-centred learning to the Chinese system. But a drift towards "TNE with Chinese characteristics" may, in the fullness of time, lead to a reconceptualization of the way we think about TNE. Rather than students in country Y getting a degree from a university in country Z, transnational education may be eclipsed by multinational education, in which students in country Y study a degree designed and delivered by universities in countries Y and Z - and even A, B and C.

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