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The Scale and Scope of UK HE TNE

Raegan Hiles

Raegan Hiles

Head of TNE
Universities UK International

With almost 665,000 students studying for UK higher education awards outside of the UK, offshore delivery is an increasingly important area for UK universities' international growth. To better understand the rise of transnational education, HEGlobal commissioned WECD to deliver the national research project The Scale and Scope of UK Higher Education Transnational Education. Providing evidence for HEIs and policy makers, the resultant report, published on 29 June 2016, takes us closer to understanding the TNE landscape. Raegan Hiles, our head of programme, reviews the findings: what does TNE now stand for?

'The Scale and Scope of UK Higher Education Transnational Education' sheds new light on the phenomenal growth not just in volume, but in the types of transnational education (TNE) that the UK is now delivering. The report shows new models a maturity across the UK's TNE offer.

1. TNE: Trends & Numbers - Evidence

663,995 is a familiar number to most TNE enthusiasts: it is the number reported in first statisticual release of the HESA 14/15 Aggregate Offshore Record (AOR) of student enrolments on UK TNE programmes offshore. Our report shows several other important numbers that may not be as readily known in TNE communities:

Table 3 

These impressive figures show greater change in the UK's outgoing TNE landscape than we might otherwise have been aware of.

The rate of growth in UK HE TNE provision

The number of TNE enrolments reported in the AOR has grown year on year; but it is only when we legislate for the 'Oxford Brookes effect'*, that we see the tremendous growth in active TNE enrolments. The UK's offshore activity is growing at more than five times the rate of the number of international students coming to the UK to study.

Most popular 'host' countries

Asia and the EU still host the majority of the UK's outgoing TNE programmes, their predominance is lessening. Asia accounts for 28% and the EU 23% of active TNE programmes, while just two years ago, 'The Value of Transnational Education to the UK'found these to be closer to 49% and 25% respectively. This is not to say that the UK's TNE has declined in those regions per  se: more likely that TNE programmes are growing and/or being established in other regions.

UK HE TNE by region - percentage of TNE programmes delivered in the regions

 Fig 37

Source: UK HE International Unit (2016), The Scale and Scope of UK Higher Education Transnational Education, Figure 3.7


We also see that the 'top 5' host countries have remained consistent for the UK's TNE in recent years, but there is movement between numbers 5-10. The countries/regions that have  entered the top ten echo the approaches made to UK institutions by overseas partners, while those just entering the 'top 10' endorse the predictions made by HEGlobal stakeholders in our surveying as to the regions they think will be important in the next 5-10 years.

UK HE TNE Provision: Top 10 Host Countries with most TNE students registered in 2014/15 (ranked by number of students) - excluding Oxford Brookes ACCA registered students

Table 3.4 

Source: UK HE International Unit (2016), The Scale and Scope of UK Higher Education Transnational Education, Table 3.4

2. TNE: The New Enrolments

As with previous studies, and in line with most assumptions about TNE, business and management continues to be the most widely delivered subject. It ranks highest in terms of the number of countries these programmes are offered in (89), the number of programmes, and the number of students across all the TNE analysed in this study. But there are differences to what we might have expected to follow as the next most popular programmes.

Medical programmes, despite the challenges of delivering such intensive programmes, including resourcing, accreditation and working with local health systems, are delivered in 66 countries, the next highest number of countries, second only to Business & Management studies. This spread is particularly interesting when considering numbers of programmes and students. By number of programmes, Arts & Humanities are second most prevalent after Business & Management; but by number of students, Social Studies & Law are second most prevalent to Business & Management. Medicine, by comparison, is 6th out of the 8 subjects by programme, with only 9%, and 5th out of the eight subjects by student enrolments with only 6%. Some of this is likely explained by the necessarily small numbers of students that can be accommodated on each medical programme cohort.

UK HE TNE subjects by volume of countries, programmes and enrolments

Table 1 Test 

Source: UK HE International Unit (2016), The Scale and Scope of UK Higher Education Transnational Education, Table 3.12, Figure 4.2 and Figure 4.3

3. TNE: Types & Needs of Education

Branch campuses are often the focus of discussions about TNE, despite being just 4-6% of the UK's TNE according to previous reports. Campuses are possibly the easiest part of TNE to conceptualise: they are tangible and concrete - literally. 'The Scale and Scope of UK HE TNE' shows that branch campuses remain a small but important part of the TNE landscape, making up around 71% of the 8% of TNE activity reported as physical presence.

It could be misleading, however, to presume that with only 8% of TNE reported to this study as 'physical presence' that UK staff are not involved in UK programme delivery overseas. 40% of activity was described as 'local delivery partnership', which is likely to include some kind of physical presence at points of study; event the 52% described as 'distance/online learning' might also have contact time offered.

TNE delivery method in the top 5 countries of delivery

 Fig 4.1

Source: UK HE International Unit (2016), The Scale and Scope of UK Higher Education Transnational Education, Figure 4.1


A finding that surprised us was that only 1% of programmes were reported to the study as 'blended' delivery. However, the descriptions of delivery (see '5. Twelve New Examples') show that programmes are delivered and staff are engaged in a multitude of ways in TNE delivery. Most programmes now involve more than one 'pure' delivery method, but are not being described by the universities offering those programmes as blended. Previously in HEGlobal blogs, Nigel Healey suggested in 'The future of TNE with "Chinese characteristics' that the term TNE may need reconceptualising; Bill Lawton suggested in 'Lessons from Thailand' that the definition of TNE might be an outdated rhetoric. Could it be that within TNE definitions, the phrase 'blended' no longer meets the understanding of TNE in practice? Perhaps pedagogy across universities - both on and offshore - has progressed to an assumption of combined methods, so no longer needs to be disaggregated as 'blended'?

4. TNE: Treatment is Nearer Equal

My discomfort with using branch campuses as shorthand for TNE does not lie only in the small percentage of TNE that they represent. Branch campuses are often perceived as solo enterprises, even their name often being the sending institution's name followed by a country. That solo labelling is appropriate for those single enterprises, but can disguise the fact that TNE is normally delivered in partnership with overseas interests - be that partner/those partners another university, a government funder, or a private interest. Even campus models and new schools are now mostly being developed as joint institutions, let alone other forms of TNE.

This study found a real shift both in numbers and styles of partnerships. Increasingly, TNE is delivered with others. More than that, those partnerships are becoming far more equitable. The UK generally leads on the three areas of HE that are its global calling cards of excellence, and the reasons that overseas interests express in their approaches for international partners that they want to work with the UK: curriculum, quality assurance, and assessment.

Responsibility for different aspects of programme provision

 Fig 53

Source: UK HE International Unit (2016), The Scale and Scope of UK Higher Education Transnational Education, Figure 5.3


The other areas of shared delivery used to also be dominated by a 'lead' partner, normally the sending institution. Now we see a more equal distribution, where the green and blue bars in the chart above are similar sizes, and in many cases a shared responsibility, represented by the red bars in the chart above. In future, as partners become more balanced, the red bar in the centre of the lines on the chart will expand, and the sole responsibility of UK and partner institutions, in green and blue, will become borders to that bar.

5. TNE: Twelve Neat Examples

We know then, that UK HE TNE numbers are growing. We can point to charts and tables that show change in location, model of delivery, and subject preferences. This data is important for planning and strategy, however, it gives a superficial understanding of what makes TNE work in practice. Alongside the quantitative analysis in the report is a series of twelve case studies. They represent some of the possible journeys to TNE provision, from different types of universities, operating in different global regions and focusing on certain aspects of education and learning provision in the host country/ies. Each example reflects on what has worked well for that particular provision, and offers lessons for future sustainability and/or TNE growth.

Thanks to the work of WECD in delivering this project and report, and to the universities who provided their data and worked so constructively with the team at WECD, we know more about UK HE TNE today than we did yesterday. But just as with studies before, a clearer sense of the current picture will inevitably lead to questions about how to use that data, and even more questions about what lies behind that information. We will turn our attention to addressing those as the numbers sink in, and ask for your help and advice in doing so. What is undeniable though, is that we now have a clearer sense of the present, and that gives us greater knowledge for informed future decision making.

On 8 July, HEGlobal will bring you a seminar exploring the report and what it might mean for TNE strategy and practice. We hope that you'll join us on the day, as well as taking part in the related discussion in our comment pieces, on Twitter and in our LinkedIn groups.


* The 'Oxford Brookes effect'

Approximately 43% of all TNE students in the 2014/15 AOR data appear to study with Oxford Brookes University, and nearly 99% of these include Oxford Brookes University ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) registered students. The impact that these student numbers have on the total TNE figures is set out below:

Table 3.2 

Source: UK HE International Unit (2016), The Scale and Scope of UK Higher Education Transnational Education, Table 3.2