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TNE taxonomies

12 December 2015
Rod Bristow

Dan Cook

Head of Data Policy and Development
Higher Education Statistics Agency


The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) collects data about the UK higher education sector’s transnational education (TNE) through the aggregate offshore record (AOR) in institution’s annual data returns. However, commentators often suggest that the AOR does not capture TNE operating models in ways that fit the evolution of offshore programme delivery. Dan Cook takes a critical look at the opportunities for change, and asks how the agency might improve data on one of the most central elements of the UK’s TNE data collection: its categorisation of the ‘type’ of TNE being delivered. 

In a recent HEGlobal commentary, Peter Dickinson points out that the HESA Aggregate Offshore record (AOR), while being one of the world’s foremost TNE data collections, still offers ‘limited information about the types and modes of delivery’. When the AOR was first designed, experts had not agreed a standard terminology for TNE: words like ‘franchising’, ‘articulation’ and ‘branch campus’ were used to indicate different ‘types’ of TNE but precise definitions did not exist. Inevitably, HESA’s TYPE coding frame attempted to cover an abundance of activity with very basic identifiers.

The situation has not advanced far today. Iterations of research have created new taxonomies for TNE ‘types’, but precise and broadly-agreed definitions still elude us. Although there has been some progress, the limitations of the HESA taxonomy have been reached:

“The categorisation of transnational education used in the Aggregate Offshore Record is not useful for understanding patterns of transnational education provision.”

BIS (2014), The Value of TNE to the UK

Unfortunately, there is no ‘off-the-shelf’ solution, new thinking is needed:

“Institutions would appear to be supportive of the development of a more systematic nomenclature and categorisation of the types and modes of transnational education to enhance sector-level data collection and improve comparability across the sector. Work is therefore required to improve the TYPE field, to reduce burden and increase the relevance of data. This demands the engagement of those who produce and use these data, as well as HESA.”

BIS (2014), The Value of TNE to the UK


What are the options? 

Several possible taxonomies for TNE exist: examples include ‘Trans-national Education and Higher Education Institutions: Exploring Patterns of HE Institutional Activity​’, ‘The Value of TNE to the UK’ ; and the Quality Assurance Agency’s (QAA)  Chapter B10 in the Quality Code for Higher Education. However, when these controlled vocabularies for TNE are set side-by-side, superficial similarities give way to inconsistencies in detail. For instance, the term ‘franchise’ is defined subtly differently by each of these schemes (see table below). Similarly, terminology used for branch campuses neither agrees between the three schemes, nor with the C-BERT branch campus listing, often recognised as the most significant global study of branch campuses.

Because of these differences, a simplified taxonomy for ‘types’ of TNE cannot be created by combining the different terminologies. Rather than boiling down to a revised, simple ‘meta-standard’, an extensive and confusing list would be required to capture the variations in terminology, a point not lost on HEGlobal, whose glossary of terms is illustrative and ‘not exhaustive.’

HE data management professionals tell HESA that it is difficult to apply the current HESA taxonomy to their provision, and in addition, many HE providers use their own in-house terminology, adding further complexity. Since substantial background knowledge is already required to inform judgements about categorisation, expanding our list of ‘types’ is unlikely to improve data quality. Quite the opposite. We need to go back to fundamentals when describing ‘types’ of TNE, and work out exactly what it is we are trying to measure.


Underlying taxonomic problem

As the range, scale and diversity of TNE has grown, we have reached the limits of the descriptive power of current taxonomies. The principal reason for this confusion is that the concept of TNE ‘type’ conflates many separate issues. These include:

• Student registration status

• Campus/location of instruction

• Awarding body (possibly including issues of 3rd party professional accreditation)

• Curriculum design responsibilities

• Teaching responsibilities of the reporting institution

• Teaching responsibilities of the collaborating partner

These six dimensions of TNE cannot be measured on a single scale, as they are about quite different ideas. If we conflate them, we require a huge number of categories to cope with the variations in meaning; if we instead take a reductionist approach and limit categories to a manageable number, we create overlaps and/or gaps where our meaning is not properly captured. By combining multiple discrete factors simultaneously in a single measure, no TNE taxonomy can represent the underlying activity adequately.


Rethinking TNE taxonomy

We could make progress by measuring separately the various elements of which TNE ‘types’ are comprised. Through asking a greater number of simpler questions, the production of the data could also be less burdensome, and future-proofed. We could replace laborious self-categorisation against contested terms, with straightforward questions. Some initial ideas – by no means set – include those in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Rethinking TNE taxonomy​

Turning new base data back into TNE ‘types’

An approach like this shouldn’t lose the consistency and comparability of our present taxonomies. Existing TNE categories could be ‘reverse-engineered’ as analytical derivations as long as the necessary basic data are present. For instance, a ‘franchise’ could be identified (for each available definition discussed above) through valid answers to each new question, as set out in Table 2. In this table, the numbers indicate the valid responses required to identify a ‘franchise’ according to each of the three definitions. Numbers indicate the valid responses (as numbered above against items a) to f)) that could be used to construct each of the three definitions of ‘franchise’ from base data. This example demonstrates both current inconsistency in terminology, and the potential usefulness of the proposed scheme.

Table 2: Correlation of proposed approach with three definitions of 'franchise' 
Criteria suggested in ‘Rethinking TNE taxonomy’ in table 1 above TNE & HEIs: Exploring Patterns of HE Institutional activity , p91

"A UK HEI's programme is run by a partner overseas in the same way that it would be delivered in the UK. Rigorous partner approval is seen as particularly important. The UK HEI's quality assurance processes are followed by the partner and may be identical to those for programmes in the UK or more rigorous (e.g. either a sample of assessed work is moderated or all work is second marked): the external examiner will be the normal UK examiner; annual quality reviews must be completed; and so forth. The LTA features will be those to be found on the UK campus for the subject."

The Value of TNE to the UK , p135

"This term describes collaborative provision where a sending HEI authorises a host HEI to deliver its (sending HEI) programme, with no curricular input by the host institution. The qualification is awarded and quality assured by the sending institution. The host HEI has primary responsibility for delivery of the programme but the sending HEI may assist with delivery of the programme by providing flying teaching faculty. Recruitment of students and provision of facilities (library, classrooms, IT) is provided by the host HEI. Franchise programmes are typically 3+0 or 4+0 with all study taking place in the host country."

UK HE Quality Code Chapter B10, p40
"A process by which a degree-awarding body agrees to authorise a delivery organisation to deliver (and sometimes assess) part or all of one (or more) of its own approved programmes. Often, the degree-awarding body retains direct responsibility for the programme content, the teaching and assessment strategy, the assessment regime and the quality assurance. Students normally have a direct contractual relationship with the degree-awarding body."

Registrationa1 or a3a1 or a3

​a1or a3 (possibly also a2)

Physical infrastructurec3 or c4 (possibly c2 or c5)c3 or c4 (possibly c2 or c5)c3, c4 (possibly c2 or c5)

​Curriculum design and quality assurance



​d1, d2, d3, possibly d4

​Delivery responsibilities: reporting institution


​e1, e2, e3, e4, e5 or e6

​e1, e2, e3, e4, e5 or e6

​Delivery responsibilities: partner(s)

​f1, f2, and/or f3

​f1, f3 (probably also f2)

​f1 (also 2 and/or 3)

​Not only can we reproduce current definitions, we could establish better common definitions. We might even assist the identification of new ‘types’ of TNE as shifts in activity are observed over time, without needing to regularly restructure the AOR. Whilst also retaining a constant approach to collecting the base data over many years. This method offers a number of advantages over the present system: 
  • Continuity can be provided with existing taxonomies by using new base data to derive old-style categories.
  • The proposal is likely to have international currency, and can evolve flexibly over time. 
  • Future changes to typology would not necessarily require changes to base data reporting by HE providers.
  • Data reporting requirements in this area would be largely stabilised for a period of several years, and additional data collections covering TNE types by researchers and organisations can be avoided. 
  • Better information would allow more targeted support for TNE from government and sector bodies, and improve market information for HEPs.
  • However, providers might not see these data as easier to produce; end users might doubt the data will meet their needs. 

Next steps

Does the principle of replacing an imposed typology with a few simpler fields from which more extensive and granular taxonomies may be built seem logical, sensible and useful? Would this work for terms other than ‘franchise’? If not, what would need to change? Has anything important been missed? Is anything here not relevant? Could this approach reduce the accountability burden by being simpler to produce and more closely related to base data? What could be improved?
Or would it be simpler just to agree on a single definition for ‘franchise’?
HESA is determined to improve data collection on TNE, to meet the sector’s growing aspirations for better data. Improvements could be introduced in HESA’s Data Futures programme. This gives us a time-frame: we need to understand what changes are required by the end of 2016. This proposal for a new way of understanding TNE activity should form part of the debate that leads to a new data specification. In the meantime, HESA is involved in the ‘HEGlobal’s Scale and Scope of UK HE TNE project’– which is filling a gap in our understanding of TNE in the present, and will help us towards designing a new national TNE data product that sets a global standard. In the meantime, let me know what you think of this draft proposal by contacting me directly by email (dan.cook@hesa.ac.uk) or twitter (@Dan_HE_Man).