Transnational education seems to support wider access to higher education and clearer routes through to postgraduate study. Is this why it is flourishing against the general expectations for international recruitment?

Transnational pathways buck the slowdown of international recruitment

Previous research carried out by the British Council and other organisations has predicted a slowdown in globally mobile students, due, in large part, to improvements in domestic higher education programmes.

But the most recent analysis into transnational pathways from HEFCE suggests that the recruitment of transnational students cuts through the current of this trend.

A third of the international (non EU) entrants to first degree programmes (17,140 entrants) in England transferred directly from overseas partner institutions. These students are referred to as transnational.

Small wonder, then, that a joint report by the British Council and the German Academic Exchange Service described transnational education as ‘a dynamic, vibrant sector of higher education internationalisation’.

But the same report also recognised the lack of knowledge about its impact and scale. HEFCE’s analysis attempts to contribute to this debate, by quantifying the contribution of UK transnational education to international enrolments in England.

The analysis is limited to international students in England, but it is possible that other countries may be using similar student recruitment practices.

Widening access?

China is the biggest source of international students for England. Significantly, more than half of the first degree entrants in 2013 (55 per cent, 8585 entrants) embarked on their study through an overseas course.

For these reasons, this discussion sees China as a prism through which to look at the issue.

In common with the projected trends, demand from China was expected to slow down. The country’s projected outward mobility ratio was forecast to drop to 1.4 per cent (this is the number of students from a given country studying abroad, expressed as a percentage of total tertiary enrolment in that country).

Figure 1 compares the global outward mobility rate and the one for China. In contrast with its forecast drop, the outward mobility rate for China was at its highest in 2012 (2.13 per cent).

It is difficult to establish with certainty what drives this increase, but one explanation is that the nature of transnational pathways might have widened access to English (and other countries’) higher education.

Shorter periods of study overseas combined with study in the home country might have provided a more efficient form of study, in terms of cost and time, for families who would not otherwise have had the means to send their children abroad.

Figure 1: Outward mobility ratio for China and the world 1999 – 2012

Outward mobility ratio for China and the world 1999 - 2012

Source: Analysis based on UNESCO Institute for Statistics data (accessed on 10 May 2015)

Figure 2 below compares annual growth in enrolments at English institutions from China to the growth in students from China worldwide.

Since 2008 the growth rate of Chinese students in England has been consistently higher compared with the annual growth in globally mobile students from China.

This suggests that England has an increased market share among students from China compared with enrolments in other countries.

Figure 2: Growth in globally mobile students from China and Chinese students at English HEIs (annual growth)

Growth in globally mobile students from China and Chinese students at English HEIs

Source: Analysis based on UIS data (accessed on 10 May 2015) and HESA.

Note: UIS data on globally mobile students from China may be incomplete for 2013, hence there may be increases if more countries report growth in enrolments from China.

To get a better understanding of this, Figure 3 studies year-on-year changes in the transnational student population from China, and compares it with other international students from China.

Transnational first degree entrants outnumbered other international students in 2010, and have since remained as a greater proportion.

Figure 3: Entrants from China to first degree programmes at English HEIs: transnational students and other international students from China

Entrants from China to first degree programmes at English HEIs

Postgraduate study

Provision in home countries has improved initially at undergraduate level. So we might expect to see the slowdown at this level, but for recruitment into postgraduate study to grow.

This might, in turn, give a further explanation for the appeal of transnational pathways. The analysis shows that transnational students from China are more likely to study at postgraduate level compared with other Chinese students.

The research studied the 2009-10 first degree entry cohorts from China to establish how many of them continued into postgraduate education by allowing four years for completing the respective first degree programme.

It showed that 65 per cent of the transnational entrants (3,475 students) and respectively 45 per cent (2,595 students) of other international entrants from China continued their studies at postgraduate level.

So a postgraduate qualification may be a key motivation for the Chinese transnational students in doing their first degree, which would have enabled them to access postgraduate training.

If this is true, then transnational pathways are facilitating different student journeys to postgraduate studies in England.

The student population and institutional engagement

Further work is needed to establish how the transnational cohorts affect the rest of the student population in England.

Details on their student experience, graduate outcomes and employability outcome will help to meet the needs of this recently emerged student population. It will also shed more light on the impact they will have on the courses, and at the institutions, they join.

The increase in transnational pathways for international student recruitment may also change the way English universities and colleges engage with overseas institutions.

The nature of these pathways underlines the need to engage strategically by forging alliances with likeminded institutions overseas, underpinned by an in-depth understanding of the other countries’ education system.