Measuring transnational education: changes to the TNE data landscape

At UUKi, we publish detailed analysis of HESA's Aggregate Offshore Record (AOR) data every year in the form of our 'Scale of transnational education (TNE)' report. This analysis, we hope, helps UK universities make decisions on how, where, and why they undertake transnational education activity. We also publish the top level data on our 'Scale of TNE' interactive webpage, which we have just updated with fresh 2019–20 data. There are a few dramatic changes and remarkable stories to reflect on.


So, what is new in the TNE data universe?

Reporting improvements

In most datasets there are one or more outliers. Historically Oxford Brookes University was the outlier in TNE, accounting for almost half of all TNE students every year since 2008–09. This anomaly was due to one single programme, a BSc in Applied Accountancy where Oxford Brookes University is involved in the quality assurance of ACCA examinations. In 2019–20 Oxford Brookes changed reporting practice to reflect the point at which students engage directly with their component of the programme, and this has brought a decrease of over 250,000 students to total TNE numbers.

Oxford Brookes is the most visible (and impactful) example, but other providers also continue to tweak, refine, and rationalise their data reporting, helping us get a more accurate picture of UK universities' transnational activity.

The number of providers reporting to HESA reached an all-time high of 156 in 2019–20, 14 more than in 2018–19. This is due to an influx of independent and small and specialist providers that are now registered with the Office for Students (OfS) and account for 13.2% of the increase in UK TNE student population from 2018–19 to 2019–20 when Oxford Brookes is excluded. Many of them are very active transnationally and several, such as Arden University, are transnational by design, offering digital and blended learning opportunities to students globally.

Our guess is that the number of providers entering the TNE reporting space will increase in the next few years, although the pace of growth will probably decrease as registrations to the OfS stabilise.


Towards an individualised student record?

Although the planned review of the AOR has been on hold since the pandemic began, HESA did introduce some modifications for the 2019–20 dataset. Among these the most significant is probably the introduction of four new headcount categories for providers based in England and Wales. The categories are: number of students continuing their study, dormant students, students who have successfully completed their course, and students who have withdrawn. On average, across all providers who reported in these new categories, 68.3% of students were continuing study, 3.8% were dormant, 23.1% successfully completed their course, and 4.2% withdrew from their course. There are a few intriguing outliers, with a small number of providers reporting as many as 35% of their students as dormant and 20% as withdrawn, while one institution reported over 90% of its students having successfully completed during the academic year, perhaps reflecting a strategic focus on delivering one-year master's programmes. Again, we may see changes in reporting practices as registries and planning offices get used to these new categories.

When the full review of the AOR will resume is uncertain. In our view, there is a need to act with caution given the complexity of gathering and interpreting data from such a wide variety of provision models and in territories with widely different cultural expectations and legal requirements. We are working with the sector to better understand the challenges and opportunities that data-driven reporting can bring to the TNE space.


Global provision, with regional characteristics

TNE continues to be delivered in an extraordinary number of countries and territories worldwide: 225 to be exact. The continued rise of TNE in Asia is noticeable with it being home to the top five countries accounting for around 40% of all student numbers, up from around 36% the previous year. Countries in South, Central and South East Asia show increasing interest in collaborating transnationally with UK universities, with China and Malaysia continuing to lead the way, and Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, and Uzbekistan continuing to climb the ladder.

TNE student numbers also continue to rise in the EU, up 60% in the four-year period since the referendum when excluding the three main providers of distance learning. We believe this is driven largely by a desire to strengthen partnerships and lay down roots in the continent to mitigate some of the more negative impacts of Brexit. Developments including new campuses for Coventry University in Wroclaw, Lancaster University in Leipzig, Queen Mary University of London's in Malta, and Northumbria University in Amsterdam, seem to indicate that growth could be sustained. There however remain many challenges on the horizon, including the protracted effects of a UK-EU Trade and Co-operation agreement that creates a more uncertain regulatory environment for providers.


The online learning revolution

We couldn't complete these reflections without mentioning the Covid-shaped elephant in the room. Our January 2021 report Building the global reputation and delivery of UK transnational online higher education estimated that, as a result of the pandemic, there could be in excess of 400,000 students studying at least partly online across borders in 2020–21. UK universities have pivoted online at remarkable speed and the quality and range of resources available to students is improving rapidly.

How this will be reflected in the data is something we won't see until next year, when HESA publishes the 2020–21 academic year datasets. However, some trends are already visible. For instance, in 2019–20, 132 providers reported students in distance, flexible or distributed learning, which is more than ever before. The number of students reported under this type of provision also increased by over 20,000 from the previous year, the largest in any category. We are continuing to work with sector bodies and government to identify and address barriers to digital cross border provision that affect a growing number of providers, from taxation of digital transactions to recognition of online learning.



This year's analysis of the AOR shows interesting novelties in reporting, location and type of provision. We expect some of these trends will accelerate as the 'new normal' (however it may look) settles in the international education space.

As a headcount dataset, the AOR is a relatively blunt instrument compared to the detailed, individualised student record available for students based in the UK, and doesn't allow us to identify student characteristics, outcomes or subjects of study. It is nonetheless a hugely valuable tool for practitioners and policymakers because it provides an overview of the global UK TNE landscape and allows us to identify new TNE trends and hot spots.

We look forward to continuing to provide analysis of trends, and to work with the sector, government, and HESA to explore ways to improve and deepen our understanding of where, how and why transnational education happens around the world.

Griff Ryan is Transnational Education Projects Officer and Eduardo Ramos is Head of Transnational Education at Universities UK International.

You can view the findings in more detail on the Scale of TNE page. You can also now register your interest for the annual TNE conference here.


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