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

Five years ago, I was working in a large Russell Group university and had the responsibility of leading their online activities. We had about 10,000 students studying professional development-related, fully online postgraduate programmes while holding down jobs, developing their careers and carrying out family responsibilities.


The value of online learning

About half of these students travelled to the UK for their graduation ceremony and I had the great pleasure of talking to lots of them during that time. I found out how much they valued the opportunity to study at a UK university and how their circumstances meant that they would not have been able to study full-time on-campus. Through those discussions, I heard stories of how students had applied what they had learned directly to their workplaces,  having an impact on their own professional development as well as benefiting the organisations they worked for.

While at a conference about online learning, I had this sudden realisation that what we were doing was not primarily 'online education' but transnational education (TNE). The pedagogical elements of delivering online are relatively straightforward, but the key to success or failure is the business model, the support offered and the various international regulatory environments that we find ourselves operating in. In 2016 I joined the Universities UK International (UUKi) TNE Advisory Group and continued to think about how online learning supports TNE. The key issues at the time were perceptions of quality of online learning, issues around integrity, and recognition of programmes delivered completely online in some geographical areas.


Grasping the nettle

Then came a global pandemic and as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention! Among the additional work that the pandemic caused us, I did have time for a wry smile when I saw many previous barriers melting away under pressures of pragmatism. A good example is China deciding to recognise qualifications gained through online study on a temporary basis. At the height of the initial lockdown, UUKi had the idea to grasp the nettle and bring together a group of academic leaders with experience of running sector-led online TNE, along with experts from relevant organisations to develop a consensus on how best to improve the scope and scale of online TNE into the future.

In July and August 2020, a Task & Finish Group was convened by UUKi to explore ways to develop and communicate a narrative around the quality of UK degrees delivered through online or blended learning overseas, and work out how the sector can collaborate with other organisations in the public, private and not-for-profit spheres to innovate in this area. The three meetings that we had were a highlight in terms of creativity, collaboration and energy. I pay great tribute to the members of the group as well as the representatives from the professional and governmental organisations involved.

The final report makes a valuable contribution to definitions around TNE and online learning and shares several interesting and informative case studies that demonstrate how institutions are rising to the opportunities that online TNE presents. There are recommendations for institutions as well as specific suggestions for work directed by the various sector bodies involved. However, the recommendations that will have the most impact in transforming this area of activity, are the ones for government. There is a critical role for the Department for Education and the Department for International Trade to lead the case for high-quality online education, negating the idea that online is somehow a second-best alternative to an on-campus experience.


Seizing opportunities

All members of the group concurred that, at its best, fully online enables collaborative, social and engaging education which develops skills and attributes that are critical for the global economic revival that will be needed post-pandemic. The expansion of TNE through online education will contribute to the spread of soft power for the UK post-Brexit. We need the government to lobby in appropriate fora for the recognition of UK online education in our key overseas markets as well as looking at the tax implications. Post-Brexit trade talks could be an appropriate place to do this.

The global response to the global pandemic has put online learning in the spotlight. The UK is world-leading in the design and delivery of this form of TNE and we now need to seize the opportunities that arise.


Professor Helen O'Sullivan is Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education) at Keele University. She expertly chaired the TNE Task & Finish Group in summer 2020. You can read the report, Building the global reputation and delivery of UK transnational online higher education, here.


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