Transnational education (TNE) has seen fast-paced growth over the past decade. But how does it tie in with broader trends in international student mobility?

Transnational education and the future of student mobility

TNE students – international students enrolled in this country who previously took a course overseas at the same institution –  have been perceived as distinctly different from those students opting to study in England for their degree.

The difference is traditionally attributed to students’ socio-economic background, family and work commitments, age profile among others. HEFCE’s latest report, ‘Directions of travel’, shows that these student groups are increasingly converging.

As the report’s author, I wanted to summarise its main findings, and to share my thoughts on some further issues it raises.

Who’s driving the transnational trend?

Over one-third (16,500) of international first-degree entrants to English higher education institutions (HEIs) in 2012-13 used the TNE route to embark on their studies.

Two countries emerge as the key drivers of this trend:

  • China’s transnational students make up 55 per cent (8,300 entrants) of the total Chinese entrants to first degree programmes in England (it was these students who were found to have driven the growth in demand from China for postgraduate studies)
  • Malaysia, where the majority of first-degree students (63 per cent – 3,200 entrants) used TNE as a pathway to their English undergraduate degree.

Malaysia and China are among the biggest countries for TNE delivery, so no surprises there. What is surprising is the higher-than-expected proportions of students using the TNE route.

Chinese transnational students make up half of the total transnational entrants to first degree programmes in England. Malaysian transnational students account for a further 19 per cent of the total transnational population.

As such, HEIs’ reliance on TNE as a pathway to first degree study is heavily concentrated in two countries.

The report also found that countries with high ratios of TNE as a pathway to a first degree course in England in general saw relatively stable growth over 2009 to 2012 (Sri Lanka and India are the exceptions).

How long is a transnational course?

It’s not possible to say exactly how much time students spend on a TNE course, but discussions with HEIs active in this area suggest that they spend at least two-three years on average on a TNE course before transferring to England.

Offshore entrants’ expected course lengths (2009 and 2012)

Offshore entrants’ expected course lengths (2009 and 2012)

This implies a longer-term commitment to English higher education compared with students who enrol directly at an English university without having done a TNE course.

It also suggests that short-term factors which adversely affect demand to study abroad (for example, exchange rates, changes in disposable income, or immigration policy) are likely to have minimal impact on these students’ choices, in the short term at least.

High tariff vs low tariff

The picture is further complicated by differences in the distribution of transnational entrants across HEIs.

Transnational and other entrants to first degree programmes by institutional
groups 2009-2012

Transnational and other entrants to first degree programmes by institutional groups 2009-2012

Half of the transnational students at high-average-tariff HEIs are concentrated in a very small number of HEIs, and most have progressed from branch campuses.

By contrast, there is a fairly even spread of transnational students across medium- and low-average-tariff HEIs, from a diverse range of TNE pathways.

About 43 per cent of the medium-average-tariff HEIs have more transnational entrants than students recruited via other means. The ratio for the low-average-tariff HEIs is 50 per cent.

Slowdown in student mobility

An increasing body of evidence points to a slowdown in international student mobility. Will this affect transnational pathways? I don’t think so.

They appear to be catering to the values and varying needs of an emerging middle class in China, and countries in South East Asia, which is set to grow.

The combination of increased flexibility of learning (which TNE offers) and a study-abroad experience appears to be meeting a demand which neither TNE or studying abroad towards a degree in and of themselves can provide.

Further questions

I began this research with a well-defined issue: to establish the contribution of transnational pathways to first-degree programmes in England. I now realise there is much more to it than just a number, and that my research raises further questions.

A question which emerged at the outset of this study was whether existing TNE definitions (mainly developed by the countries delivering TNE) are still fit for purpose.

It seems that different HEIs have developed their own TNE vocabulary. Often, different terms are used to describe the same activity. Conversely, the same term is used to label a wide range of TNE activities. Arriving at a standard set of definitions, which accurately captures the spectrum of TNE activities HEIs engage in, remains a challenge.

Further questions stem from the quality of the student experience. If cohorts of students from the same TNE route are joining a programme in England part-way through, what is their experience like?

Other questions are: how much real difference there is for the student (home and international) between a year abroad as an exchange or visiting student, and a year abroad which is a degree in its own right, as part of an integrated double-degree programme? What would students choose, given the choice? And how does this affect graduate outcomes?

More work will be needed to answer these questions. We can say with some confidence that flexible higher education degrees, which appeal to diverse student communities across the world, widen access, respond to local needs in real time and are embedded in the local cultural context, are bound to thrive.

The sustainability of this provision, however, will depend on the quality of the student experience and the difference it makes to students and their communities.

Read the report ‘Directions of travel: Transnational pathways into English higher education’.