UK universities are world leaders in transnational education (TNE). The latest data from HESA shows that in 2017-18 only, 139 universities delivered UK programmes of study overseas in 225 territories. That's probably more than any other country.
TNE is also strategically important to the UK. The UK government has highlighted TNE as one of the pillars of its
International Education Strategy. This was published in March and includes three actions (19, 20 and 21) specifically tailored to supporting the growth and diversification of TNE.
We would argue that the success story of UK TNE has been underpinned by the excellent reputation of the UK's universities. This helps UK degrees stand out in a crowded marketplace.
However, the pattern of provision is changing. Host country regulators and agencies are increasingly scrutinising TNE programmes, looking for quality in niche areas that help tackle local industrial and economic needs. The new byword is 'relevance'.
So, how do we ensure that reputation and relevance coalesce to achieve the IES' ambitious goals for a 'Global Britain'?
One key instrument to safeguard the reputation of UK provision overseas is a robust system of regulation and quality assurance of TNE that is sensitive to the needs of host country populations.
Since 2018, the roll-out of a new regulatory framework in England and the creation of the Office for Students (OfS) have had an impact in the way TNE provision is quality assured.
Paragraph 88 of the OfS
regulatory framework makes clear that registered providers' obligations are to
all students, irrespective of where they are located. The organisation announced it will develop a regulatory approach to TNE in its recently published
business plan 2019-20.
The approach taken by the OfS may retain elements of the UK-wide framework for quality assessment (such as the
Quality Code for Higher Education). However, it could also introduce measures that depart from the current system.
What should the OfS consider when developing a regulatory approach to TNE in England? I think there are 5 areas it should focus on.
UK universities' higher education is underpinned by UK-wide quality assurance processes. The need to be proportionate, recognise the diversity of TNE, and avoid unnecessary fragmentation in the eyes of overseas partners must all be factored in when designing a system for the quality assurance of TNE provision in England.
The focus on risk is perceived differently in different jurisdictions. A
consultation run jointly by the QAA and UUKi in 2014 warned against the use of the term 'risk-based' in TNE quality assurance. Perceptions that overseas regulators, agencies and partners may have of the review of provision considered 'risky' could create unease and potentially trigger additional in-country regulatory barriers.
Some data is either hard or impossible to collect in certain countries. For instance, the longitudinal education outcomes metric relies on tax and benefits data that cannot be collected overseas. Interpreting data can also be complex due to cultural contexts (for instance, when measuring the student experience through surveys, or when using student complaints as indicators). Further work is needed to understand what data can be collected for TNE and with which purpose.
Internationally, competition operates on a different scale. Institutions collaborate with overseas partners for co-designing and co-delivering educational programmes and simultaneously compete with a wide array of local and international providers. Regulation should take into account the delicate balance between collaboration and competition overseas in order to promote innovation, diversity and improvement.
The need to show value-for-money is transposed to international contexts, where understanding of what constitutes high-quality education is influenced by local needs assessments.
TNE can help address capacity issues, as well as upskill and re-skill the local workforce. The regulation of TNE needs to factor in local perceptions when addressing the issue of how much value students are getting for their education.
A 2014 British Council and DAAD
report found that the UK's overseas partners look to TNE primarily to improve the overall quality of higher education in their countries. Similarly, TNE students consider the quality and prestige of the foreign institution and/or education system as one of the major benefits of enrolling on TNE programmes.
Our partners are looking to UK TNE to help them tackle local academic, economic and industrial needs. It is essential that government, regulators, funders and universities work together to ensure that quality assurance and regulation of TNE help meet both student needs and local priorities.
Keeping the UK's world leading position and achieving the International Education Strategy goals will depend on this.