Global trends shaping TNE

Earlier this year, Janet Ilieva joined university leaders, policy makers and strategists at an HEGlobal-UPP strategic roundtable meeting to consider 'Opportunities for growth' for UK universities and transnational education (TNE). Here, she brings together different analyses to identify why and where TNE might grow, and argues that in doing so, TNE needs to evolve to meet new environmental challenges and deliver true partnership working.

Engaging in transnational education (TNE) has been surrounded by a fair amount of controversy for both hosts and providers. Countries' attitudes range from cautious treatment of foreign providers in places with strong private higher education provision (e.g. Brazil, India, Indonesia), to others embracing TNE as part of the local education landscape (e. g. Malaysia, Hong Kong).

Despite the risks and reservations, there continues to be global appetite for TNE. There are questions, though, about what it should or could look like. Three global trends which support further expansion in collaborative TNE provision but are likely to change the "look and feel" of what we currently define as TNE are:

  • Mobility is increasing within the world's regions
  • A rising middle class and growth in the services sector's contribution to the national output will boost further in demand for education
  • Globally, maturing higher education systems will demand equitable partnerships.

1. Mobility is increasing within the world's regions

Analysis of UNESCO Institute of Statistics data suggests that while global student mobility continues its growth (maintaining roughly a 2% share of global tertiary enrolments), international student mobility within the world's regions is growing faster than student mobility to traditional study destinations, in particular East Asia.

TNE appears to have supported countries' domestic higher education capacities and met shortfalls in domestic demand. A growing number of countries have started to export higher education, both through increased international student recruitment and through their own TNE. Not surprisingly, the countries which have established themselves as education hubs over the past decade (Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, the UAE, Botswana) are the ones with very strong foreign TNE provision. To some extent, TNE has been a significant pull factor for international students towards the "education hub" countries, and has supported their international student recr​uitment targets.

TNE is almost always delivered in English, which has aided recruitment of international students. International branch campuses, as one example, have provided a more affordable alternative for students seeking a UK English language education than studying at the home institution in the UK, through often lower tuition fees and a lower cost of living. Additional cost-effective pathways to overseas study have been delivered in the form of TNE where the students undertake part of their study in the home country and top up their education to a degree level overseas, and also that of dual or double degrees. This has widened access to international education for students who would not have been able to study in a traditional study destination (with higher tuition fees and cost of living) for the entire duration of an undergraduate degree; it has also allowed mobility at regional levels whilst still accessing international options. As Bill Lawton argued in 'Lessons from Thailand', there is a "growing overlap between traditional student mobility and TNE definitions."

Additional complexity - or opportunity for students - may be added by a growth in the numbers of TNE students studying at one or more institutions in different geographical locations.

What appears to be a current gap in the body of knowledge is the lack of clear evidence as to whether or not the regional mobility and mobility aided by TNE is driven by students whose families would not have had the means to study in one of the established study destinations. In other words, is there a shift in mobility from traditional host countries to the newly emerged education hubs?

Motivation aside, TNE provides a means to engage with and benefit from the rise in intra-regional mobility and equally mobility of wider student population who may not have the means for a full degree study abroad.

2. A rising middle class and growth in the services sector's contribution to the national output will boost further in demand for education

PricewaterhouseCooper's 'World in 2050' report shows a shift in spending power from West to East, with Indonesia rising to replace Germany as the world's fifth largest economy. The fastest real annual growth up to 2050 is expected to be driven by the economies of Nigeria, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia. In addition to growing wealth, demand for higher education will be further enhanced by the needs of knowledge-based economies, most pronounced in growing economies with large service sectors, such as India and the Philippines.

Taking India and the Philippines:

  • These countries' domestic higher education provision is likely to strain to cater to the needs of their expanding youthful populations. Further expansion of their tertiary-age population which, combined with growth in wealth, is likely to exert continued pressure on the domestic higher education system and stimulate demand to study overseas.

  • English being the medium of instruction in both local higher education systems further supports the favourable environment in these countries for collaborative education provision.

  • At present, the regulatory environment with regard to TNE is comparatively restrictive in both India and the Philippines. Pressure for liberalisation of the current regulatory framework is likely to come from students demanding access and from higher education institutions, which will benefit from fuller engagement in TNE delivered at home and overseas.

TNE provides a means to engage with and benefit from the increasing demand for education, growing global populations and skills needs; as well as to drive that demand.

3. Globally, maturing higher education systems will demand equitable partnerships.

Higher education systems globally are maturing, which can be measured in terms of improved access to higher education and the heightened importance of quality assurance frameworks. While maturing higher education systems on their own do not command growth in TNE, they are likely to demand TNE built on more equitable partnerships.

A discernible shift across countries' quality assurance frameworks is towards greater alignment with international standards. Increasingly, national quality assurance agencies are signing bilateral agreements and participating in regional higher education quality assurance networks, with some countries holding full memberships of several different bodies -highlighted by the British Council in The Shape of Things to Come II. (For example, the UK's Quality Assurance Agency, QAA, has 15 international memoranda of understanding or cooperation with international agencies, including the British Council, in addition to being an active member of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education and the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education.

Improved alignment among countries' quality standards facilitates greater international collaborations in the provision of education. This will be further advanced by the growth in regional mobility. Equitable partnerships which contribute to capacity-building in host countries and support local and regional agendas are likely to shape future models of TNE.

What does this mean for transnational education?

TNE, in whatever shape it might take in the future, can offer long term mutual benefits to universities and is a true opportunity for growth. There are substantial changes happening in world socio-economic and demographic landscapes, and countries' defined skills needs. These have created global education challenges which TNE may be the most dynamic response to. This level of environmental change means that TNE is unlikely to be sustained through traditional offshore models; providers hoping to grow their TNE provision in response to those higher education questions must look to greater partnership working and multiregional approaches.

Our team


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