For the right reasons, with the right partners, in the right way: reviewing the value of TNE partnerships

22 May 2020
Chairs in an empty lecture hall

TNE – it slips so easily off the tongue, three simple little letters, almost musical – like Doh, Ray, Me. It can’t be rocket science, can it? Since the words transnational education so clearly sum up all that we are about, it is so obviously the right thing to do.  


We simply take our awards and deliver them in other countries to students who may not have the resources or desire to come to the UK. How complicated can that be? And what’s not to like about increasing exports of our world class education in TNE form – which is already worth over £640 million, and a massive increase in TNE was part of the government’s International Education Strategy.

It’s surely going to be a big part of the answer to the sector’s delivery challenges as we consider how to respond to Covid-19 – so by 2030 it must be massive – right? – go big or go home!  

But Covid-19 has in this, as in so many other areas, made the sector lift the lid higher on what we do, and think harder about why we do it. It has also forced us to focus more clearly on what the real benefits are of the things we do, and what it takes to deliver real success for students and staff. 

A chance to review our TNE partnerships 

TNE is a numbers game, that can get dizzying in reviewing global education markets; but the TNE fee is often less than 10% of that which international students pay in the UK. Few institutions are able to calculate the true costs of delivery, but even with the most conservative cost estimates, not many TNE partnerships endear themselves to finance directors. 

Failure rates can be reduced significantly if you are really careful about partner selection but that means looking beyond the usual criteria to form a deep appreciation of the why, what and how of the potential partners approach. They will typically be private sector providersespecially outside of China 

While operating in a commercial way is not itself a bad thing (you absolutely don’t want your partner going bust), you need to be clear about their motivations. If either partner is just in it for short term financial returns, things are unlikely to end happily. Partners will also have their own local pressures, regulatory, operational, cultural and so on.

We all need to look beyond the superficial façade to the reality below, as this is where the academic management and delivery rubber hits the road. It is important not just to review from a UK perspective, or to rely on local regulators. 

Risk versus reward 

As we review priorities in an increasingly complex and challenging worldTNE – in all its many and various forms – is essential to the future vitality of the UK higher education sector. It is an indispensable part of delivering our mission, including widening participation on a global basis. But as with everything we do, we have to do it right, for the right reasons, with the right approach to risk management and the right focus on the most valuable asset a university has – our reputation.  

As a starting point, it is worth noting that not every form of TNE is right for everyone. For the small and the cautious that lack the infrastructure or the risk management capacity, it may be best to focus on progression and articulations. 

For others, the development of delivery truly in collaboration with partners opens up a world of opportunity to: 

  • embed TNE into institutional education and research strategies 

  • drive multi-site delivery 

  • deliver innovative short programmes and global passport programmes 

  • enrich our core offer on the long and interesting road to 2030 

The future of TNE 

A simplistic agenda of making (a bit of) money through the transactional delivery of programmes, a long way from home, as a marginal activity was never a viable strategy. In an increasingly complex world I would even say it is a dangerous one.  

The UK higher education sector should embrace TNE that is: 

  • prosecuted as a sophisticated part of a sustainable and scalable global strategy that extends our core missions 

  • based on deep relationships of mutual trust, continuing joint development of capacity and capability, with the associated opportunities to enrich the curriculum 

  • supportive of large scale mobility (virtual or physical) 

  • prioritising the crucial transnational research agenda 

It is indeed a great prize to establish a global academic platform on which we deliver high quality, relevant and impactful education. An even greater prize if it includes synergies around student mobility and collaborative research, social and economic development needs in key territories, and collaboration with partners who share our commitment to long term and meaningful engagement. This is a significant opportunity that the UK sector should embrace but it is not without its risks for the unwary and the unwise. It may be best approached with less ‘carpe diem’, and a bit more ‘caveat emptor’ – not so much ‘seize the day’ but rather ‘buyer beware’. 

Dr. David Pilsbury is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International Development) at Coventry University. He delivered a session on Managing risk: assessing hidden risks in TNE operations’ at theInternational Higher Education Forum online.


Strengthening the case for UK Official Development Assistance investment in higher education

18 February 2021
The sector has an opportunity to build a strong case not only for continued ODA investment in existing areas but increased, and more effective investment across higher education.

Building the global reputation and delivery of UK transnational online higher education

21 January 2021
Professor Helen O’Sullivan shares her reflections on our TNE Task & Finish Group’s latest report