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Finances, quality, outcomes could stymie UK TNE growth

Overseas partnerships for UK institutions are on the rise but there is a risk that inadequate quality assurance, low TNE student outcomes and financial inexperience could choke growth.

John McNamara, director of research at McNamara Economic Research, Nigel Healey, pro vice-chancellor international, Nottingham Trent University, Christine Ennew, provost, University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, and William Lawton, higher education consultant gave TNE insight in the TNE Hub's final panel. Photo: The PIE News

“Things could go wrong in a day and the potential reputational damage to us as a sector is always there"

This was a major concern voiced at the first TNE Hub (#tnehub) in Nottingham last week that brought together leading TNE researchers and practitioners to discuss the profitable but poorly measured practices of transnational education.

According to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, 80% of all UK universities are involved in transnational activity in the form of top-up degree courses, joint degree programmes, franchises and international branch campuses.

Figures from the UK Higher Education International Uni show that in 2014/15, UK TNE student enrolments totalled 664,000 (Oxford Brookes University Associated Chartered Certified Accountant programme enrolments accounted for about 40%), compared to 25,000 at German providers.

80% of all UK universities are involved in transnational activity

And since 2010, TNE enrolments have grown 32% among UK providers, compared to just 10% for Australian educators and 11-12% for German TNE.

But while universities expand operations globally, many “aren’t particularly equipped to be multinational companies”, charged Nigel Healey, pro vice-chancellor of international at Nottingham Trent University.

“Generally speaking, financial models are not set up for TNE, higher education is a highly politicised, highly regulated public sector,” he said.

Speaking with The PIE News, Healey said universities could learn from global corporations. “They’ve got very sophisticated finance and HR functions because they’re dealing in multiple countries and they’re routinely moving people around their global network,” he said. “Most universities only started in this game 10 years ago and we’re playing catch up.”

Compounding the problem, said Healey, are the differences in cultural and regulatory approaches between the UK and TNE host countries like Malaysia or China.

“It’s almost like a perfect storm because you’ve picked the most alien markets to go, you’ve taken institutions that are not evolved to deal with international activity and now you’re asking them to do international activity in markets that are most challenging in some ways,” he said.

Meanwhile, Carolyn Campbell, senior consultant at the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education and former head of networks and partnerships at QAA, said more data needs to be available to inform student choice.

“Where does the TNE student experience lie in metrics and quality assurance?” she asked, highlighting the focus on the student experience at home campuses, especially since the release of the new Teaching Excellence Framework.

Maintaining overall quality standards continues to be a challenge for providers due to the size and distance of TNE operations.

Vicky Lewis, founder of Vicky Lewis Consulting, said 27 international branch campuses have closed to date due to “overambitious targets and underwhelming reality”.

And most institutions involved in TNE have more students off campus than on, presenting a huge challenge to monitor student experience and quality assurance.

“Somewhere in the next year, some partnership will fail somewhere. The nature of partnerships work [is] that things could go wrong in a day and the potential reputational damage to us as a sector is always there,” Chris Slade, director of partnerships at Staffordshire University, told The PIE News.

“Where does the TNE student experience lie in metrics and quality assurance?”

Often, university governors are even unaware of the quality assurance risks involved in TNE, said Will Archer, founder of i-graduate.

“Those that are ultimately legally responsible for the quality and provision often don’t know because they’re either not aware of it or not aware of its significance. It’s a question around risk management and the awareness of it,” he said.

Healey added that a lack of standardised TNE measurement tools plays a role in shallow stakeholder understanding.

“For many universities, the way in which they account for offshore students in terms of the incoming costs often is not particularly sophisticated and a little bit opaque,” he said. “It’s often quite hard to find what is the income stream, what are the costs associated with this provision to actually make informed judgements.”

In a bid to tackle quality assurance shortfalls by region, earlier this year, the British Council, QAA, the China Education Association for International Exchange, the China Academic Degrees and Graduate Education Development Centre and the International Unit signed a statement of shared principles in UK-China TNE.

And this autumn QAA said it will contribute to a British Council country briefing looking at transnational education in China, the second most active market for UK TNE after Malaysia.

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