While outbound student mobility from China has begun to slow, transnational education (TNE) activity shows no signs of slowing down. Today, there are more than 800 approved Sino-foreign joint programmes operating at the undergraduate level and nearly 200 more at the postgraduate level, according to the Ministry of Education. From fewer than 600 of these approved programmes in China in 2011, there are more than 1,000 today and the number of approvals continues to rise.  

In addition, the Ministry of Education released for the first time in September a list of 615 joint TNE programmes with vocational colleges in China (see note 1), bringing the total number of Sino-foreign joint partnerships at tertiary levels to well over 1,600. What’s more, this figure likely significantly understates the true level of TNE activity in China, as enhanced articulation agreements and some forms of joint partnership are not included in the Ministry’s tally.

The UK continues to be the partner of choice for TNE at undergraduate levels in China, with more than 25 per cent of all approved undergraduate programmes. Among postgraduate programmes, the UK ranks only fifth, but it still boasts more combined undergraduate and postgraduate partnerships than any other country. However, when including the recently announced joint vocational programmes into the tally, the UK is edged out slightly by Australia, which makes up 30 per cent of all announced partnerships with further education colleges in China – more than twice as many as the UK.

Of course, not all joint programmes should be considered the same, and the quality of provision matters at least as much as the quantity when comparing the TNE footprint of different countries in China. However, it is also instructive to look at the relative strengths of the major host destination countries in forming TNE partnerships in China: the UK leads the way in undergraduate programmes, the US at postgraduate levels, and Australia among vocational colleges.

Ministry of Education approved TNE programmes, by partner country

Ministry of Education approved TNE programmes, by partner country
Source: Ministry of Education, 2014; notes: (1) data represents approved joint programmes
and joint institutes; (2) vocational total represents only 25 of 31 provinces in China.

The rate of approvals for new TNE programmes in China has surged since the announcement of the ‘2010-2020 Mid- and Long-Term China Education Reform and Development Plan’ in 2010. Joint programmes came to even greater prominence last month, when Premier Li Keqiang included TNE among a list of priority areas and industries for China as part of its drive to boost domestic consumption, signalling that policy support for TNE in China will remain robust into the future.

As TNE has come to be seen by officials as an increasingly important element of the country’s push to internationalise its higher education sector, however, greater efforts have also been made to ensure the quality of existing programmes and encourage new joint partnerships in strategic subjects and locations of China.

Quality assurance has taken a few different forms in China. First, the Ministry of Education has increased scrutiny over the amount of resources that foreign institutions contribute to their existing partnerships in China, signalling a desire for greater integration and more participation of foreign partners in the teaching activities of local institutions. Second, the government has discouraged foreign universities from forming multiple partnerships in the same subject area, worrying that quality may suffer otherwise. Lastly, the Ministry of Education has expressed concern that certain subjects are currently oversupplied, most notably business and administrative studies, which make up more than one third of all TNE joint partnerships in China.

Ministry of Education approved TNE programmes, by subject

Ministry of Education approved TNE programmes, by subject
Source: Ministry of Education, 2014; British Council SIEM

Thus, even as the number of TNE joint programmes continues to grow in China, the government has begun to adopt a wait-and-see approach to new TNE programme approvals. In practice, this means discouraging foreign institutions from applying for multiple programmes simultaneously, particularly those without an established track record of successful delivery of TNE in China.

As interest in China’s TNE market has grown, so has the government’s ability to dictate the terms of which programmes will be approved – and with which partners. Moreover, even as the market shows no sign of slowing down, scrutiny of these programmes will only grow, as will the demands on foreign partners to deliver and maintain high quality partnerships. Given this increased oversight and a push for quality assurance, the key to long-term success in China is finding the right local partner. It was ever thus.


1. This figure covers only 25 of 31 provinces of China, so the national total is likely higher.
2. See HEFCE’s latest report on the growing transnational nature of English higher education