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Getting to grips with the Scale and Scope of UK HE TNE data

10 November 2016
Rod Bristow

Professor Nigel Healey

Fiji National University

In June 2016, HEGlobal launched its first significant research report, The Scale and Scope of UK Higher Education Transnational Education. The research, conducted by WECD, outlines trends in UK TNE, alongside a series of case studies which show a range of the TNE activity and models currently in operation.

At a workshop discussing the report in July, speakers and delegates reiterated the ambitions identified in the report of four in five universities to grow their TNE. Professor Nigel Healey chaired the discussion; here he considers how the sector might meet future data needs to deliver against those aspirations. 

HEGlobal's new report highlights the continued growth of transnational education (TNE), with enrolments up 13.4% in 2014/15 over two years ago. The analysis is the first major piece of research into the UK's offshore programmes since BIS' 2014 publication 'The Value of Transnational Education to the UK'. The increase in TNE activity is in marked contrast to international (non-EU) enrolments on campus, which posted a faltering 0.5% year-on-year increase in 2014/15 according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), as the UK continues to lose market share to competitors.

In its 'International Education Strategy', the coalition government championed TNE as a means of growing export education.  Table 1 shows the significant growth that has taken place across all forms of transnational education, with the total numbers now considerably higher than for on-campus international students (which were 312,010 in 2014/15, compared with 663,915 studying wholly offshore).

Despite recent improvements in the quality of HESA's 'Aggregate Offshore Return' (AOR) - the new HEGlobal census showed greater alignment with the AOR than previous studies - there remain well-documented weaknesses.  These include the distorting 'Oxford Brookes effect', which means that the AOR includes 283,000 part-time ACCA students who are enrolled at Oxford Brookes University.  This high number makes it appear that this is the 'standard' model and mode of TNE across the UK, rather than one large global set of registrations.  For this reason, we often exclude the numbers from that programme, in order to get a clearer picture of the UK's TNE activity. This and other weaknesses of the AOR have been well documented, including in HEGlobal blog.

HESA colleagues are members of the HEGlobal Advisory Board and are well aware of the deficiencies in the AOR, although improving the integrity of the data is fraught with problems.  For example, changes in the official guidelines to better capture the number of students studying for validated qualifications in the 'other' category (see Table 1 above) have left many university administrators confused.  It is evident that there is extensive under-reporting of students studying for validated qualifications in the 'other' category.  In comparison with the latest HESA record of 8,590 transnational students in validated centres, 'The Value of TNE to the UK' estimated 43,937 students studying in these arrangements in 2012/13. The HEGlobal's 'The Scale and Scope of UK HE TNE' estimated that in 2014/15 over one-third (35%) of all TNE students in locally delivered partnerships were studying for validated qualifications.

The diversity of models presented in HEGlobal's report highlights an ongoing difficulty with the AOR.  Transnational partnerships have developed, and continue to evolve in new ways which make it hard for universities to report activity within one of the HESA categories. The report summaries a number of fascinating case studies from across the sector, which 'blend' aspects of distance learning and collaborative provision. The University of Leeds and Southwest Jiaotong University, for example, operate a 'joint school' in Chengdu, offering dual engineering programmes; the University of Glasgow and Nankai University of Tianjin also have a joint school offering dual two-year MSc degrees in Environmental Management, International Relations and Urban and Regional Planning.  These degrees are jointly developed, taught and assessed by academic staff from the UK and the Chinese partners, making it hard to definitively categorise this form of TNE.  Indeed, it is arguable that joint Sino-foreign schools do not meet any of HESA's classifications, since they award degrees recognised by the Chinese Ministry of Education as well as by the UK partner institution.

There are many useful insights from the HEGlobal report, but arguably the most significant conclusion is that it is now time to take the reporting of TNE seriously.

A persistent challenge in addressing all of the TNE issues identified here is the need for improved data on the UK's TNE offer. The HESA aggregate offshore record (AOR) is an excellent starting point to consider the scale and scope of UK HE TNE, but it is limited, including by its narrow structure and definitions. Most institutions report difficulty in responding to the AOR field, and many interpret the data categories differently. It is important for HESA to review the AOR and that any changes in data reporting and collection can flex as TNE evolves, but this must not increase reporting burden on universities to an extent that becomes unmanageable. HESA is currently considering ways to take this forward, and doing so in discussion with key stakeholders including HEGlobal.

HEGlobal (2016), The Scale and Scope of UK HE TNE, paragraph 2.31

To this end, work by the British Council and DAAD toward a data classification framework for TNE is welcome - as is HESA's involvement in these discussions. But more work is needed.

The UK is one of the world's largest providers of offshore higher education and it cannot be acceptable for our official data to be partial and misleading or to rely on occasional commissioned research projects - however authoritative - to understand what is happening in the sector. There are unquestionably difficulties in categorising the types of transnational education, but the main challenge is to help university administrators understand the principles on which they being asked to report, appreciate the benefits of having such data, and to hold institutions accountable for reporting their activity accurately. Only then will we have the data to monitor developments in transnational education on a consistent, annual basis.