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Making TNE a strategic priority

16 December 2015
Paul Marshall

Dr Paul Marshall

Group Business Development Director

Transnational education (TNE) is growing as a priority for the UK’s higher education institutions. Effective TNE delivery requires high quality academic infrastructure and support services – two of the areas in which UPP supports universities. Paul Marshall, UPP’s Group Director of Business Development, considers the strategic challenges for universities operating offshore, and invites COOs and registrars to consider these themes through a roundtable forum starting next year.

Had you asked me five years ago what the ‘next big thing’ for international higher education would be, my answer would most likely have focused on student recruitment or digital opportunities. These still feature in future internationalisation plans, but the discussion has moved on. Now, they are woven into more strategic narratives, rather than as standalone topics. More and more, conferences and articles about UK higher education focus on the ‘next big thing’ for international growth being transnational education (TNE). 

The anticipated expansion of TNE in the coming years means that higher education strategists, practitioners and policy makers are likewise according it greater priority in their operations. At least two thirds of the UK’s higher education providers already report some offshore programme activity, and if your university isn’t yet thinking about TNE, they most likely will be in the near future. Already, some of the predictions about growing student numbers through TNE are being realised, with almost 40k more offshore students reported to HESA between 12/13 and 13/14.

TNE can represent a secure and long-term international venture that brings new students into the UK HE education community. It can give universities access to overseas markets, funding and research. These potential benefits are clear but not easy to achieve. They require careful planning and a high level of engagement throughout the institution. Universities need to overcome a myriad of issues from how to mitigate the risks of operating in a foreign country to how to deliver the right kind(s) of student experience(s) overseas. So it is vital that experts and university leaders collaborate right across the institution - from librarians to directors of estates; from student welfare experts to academic researchers – to maximise the potential of TNE. This needs buy-in at the most senior of levels. 

We want to help the UK’s HE sector realise the potential TNE benefits, and so we’ve been working with HEGlobal to consider the key opportunities and challenges for senior management at universities. We’ve identified four key areas:

  • Opportunities for growth. Many overseas governments have highlighted shortfalls of domestic capacity to meet their in-country demand either for higher education in its widest sense, or for particular skills and subjects. UK institutions can provide this supply. This is amplified in countries with growing cohorts of high achieving school leavers. Postgraduate opportunities are also attractive overseas: research suggests that many TNE students are already established in employment and looking to advance their existing career rather than attend full time study straight out of school.
  • Establishing a branch campus. True, branch campuses account for a very small percentage of the UK’s HE delivered overseas, but they are strategically important. They are visible representations of the university as a global entity, and offer an international education for students who might not be able to finance full study abroad. Students registered at a branch campus are often studying full time and their allegiance lies clearly with the campus, meaning they will be valuable alumni in years to come.  However, campuses can represent significant investment upfront for a university, or its funding partner(s); because of this, they also offer the highest potential wins and losses for the university. 
  • Identifying partners. Working effectively in partnership with others positions HE providers well - be that with other institutions to secure funding or share best practice, or commercial interests to combine research resource and human collateral, or industry to develop employment ready graduates. Partnership is key to the UK’s offer overseas – it gives insight into local needs and allows overseas and UK interests to marry their strengths. This might be through 1:2:1 partnerships between sending universities and host providers, or on a wider scale such as the University of London’s International Programme use of consortium strength to build its operations. 
  • Reputation and risk. Effective TNE can boost a university’s presence and reputation overseas. The halo effect of overseas brand awareness can boost international recruitment to the UK for either full degree programmes, or through progression from an overseas partner. But wherever there can be big win, there can be big losses. Early exits carry a high price tag, and we have seen high profile campus closures generate negative press and assumptions of low quality delivery. 
To support the UK higher education sector to be strategic in its approach to TNE development and management, UPP are co-hosting a series of roundtables with HEGlobal over the next six months. The idea is to support strategic decision makers in establishing best practice and shaping TNE policies for universities across the UK. 
UPP are committed to ensuring that higher education remains one of Britain’s greatest exports. We want to help the UK’s universities to retain the first mover advantage in TNE, and grow their programme capacity, excellence and professionalism when operating offshore.