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The student voice in the TNE evidence base

This summer, the long awaited study into the wider value of UK higher education transnational education (TNE) finally landed on our desks.

At a time when the UK’s international relationships are being scrutinised, this publication is an important reminder that our universities’ offshore activity should not be viewed through a narrow lens as a financial contribution to our and host countries’ economies, but remembering that the impacts of TNE are personal to each and every learner. 

Shortly before this study was published, I asked whether being out of ‘site’ meant being out of mind.
I questioned, 
‘Where are the students in these discussions? Where is their voice?’
From an education system in the UK which emphasises student engagement, success and access at all levels, we do ourselves a disservice if we do not carry those strengths of UK higher education when we deliver programmes globally.
The wider benefits of Transnational Education to the UK’ research report, delivered by the Careers Research & Advisory Centre (CRAC Ltd) for the Department for Education, introduces us to the TNE student voice. There have been previous studies in this area: the British Council’s Portrait of a Transnational Education student and Impacts of transnational education on host countries, amongst others, have enriched discussion and understanding. CRAC’s study adds both breadth and depth to these discussions, through interviews with 66 students across a variety of regions and degree programmes.

TNE programmes benefit the learner

UK universities should take pride at the positivity with which the graduates in this study valued their UK studies. Most of the graduates had chosen TNE degrees for career reasons, and most had achieved career success since their studies, which they largely attributed to the TNE programme. Many spoke about the relative merit of having a UK degree rather than from another provider. They talked about TNE giving them access to a degree programme which they could not have otherwise studied. This supports the arguments that policy and university strategy makers have made for several years about recruitment and widening participation through TNE.
Whilst the feedback from TNE students endorsed the need for and value of offshore degrees, it is important to note that not all felt as strong a connection to their UK provider as if they had studied in the UK. Some students expressed a disassociation between the UK university and themselves, particularly those who experienced little direct contact with UK teaching staff. 

Learning from the learners

‘The wider benefits of TNE’ does not shy away from the criticisms that students expressed, and nor should it. The benefit of studies like this is to inform future management and practice. The report includes a series of recommendations which we should heed, in particular around student engagement. It suggests:
  • Relationships with alumni: UK universities should seek to build better contacts and long term relationships with their transnational programme alumni, including those who studied through partnership programmes. 
  • Learning and other student support services: UK universities need to review critically the full mix of support that they (and their partners) offer to students undertaking transnational programmes.
  • Contact with and understanding of the UK: The sector generally needs to foster amongst transnational programme students and alumni a greater understanding of the UK and to maximise relationships with UK nationals (both overseas and within the UK). 
  • Marketing and related activities: Marketing and communication activities to support transnational education programme recruitment need further to be improved. 
Source: Extracts from Department for Education (2017), The wider benefits of Transnational Education to the UK, Recommendations pp10-11
These are learning points, and ones that we and our university colleagues will be looking at closely to improve practice. 

The TNE evidence base

The findings expose further gaps in our knowledge about the TNE experience and thereby more learning needs, including:
Graduate outcomes: The alumni interviews in this research illuminate much about what TNE meant to those graduates, but they are just 66 voices. We do not have any systematic way of understanding what impact TNE makes more broadly for students: what are their degree outcomes, and what do they go on to do after graduation? Do we need a more comprehensive review of the impact of TNE on individuals, host countries, and the UK – that looks at more than simply economic factors? 
Economic impact: The Department for Education published calculations earlier this summer which valued UK HE TNE in 2014-15 at £510million. Notwithstanding that analysis, the last major study of economic impact related to TNE in 2012-13. Is it time for a more comprehensive review of the direct value as well?

The importance of the TNE learner

Learning points are not failures; the recommendations here show a sector growing in maturity and delivering education solutions to increasingly motivated student cohorts and regions of the world.

 This report shows that we are right to celebrate the value that TNE offers the UK in growing our networks round the world. The graduates that contributed to this study almost unanimously voiced pride in having completed a UK degree, no matter what country they had completed that degree in. The voices heard so strongly throughout this report show that the impacts of TNE are most felt by individuals, and should be considered in the same way that the potential and realised impacts of any degree programme are looked at for student success.

 TNE graduates are our future generations of student ambassadors. With numbers growing at a faster rate than international student recruitment into the UK, we must make sure that they are supported through their studies to success.