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TNE in the age of globalisation: equity, access and soft power

Education is the beating heart of a nation – we know because it is lauded from the eclectic dinner parties of the great and the good to the barricades of the disposed and dissenting; our friends, who are legion, spontaneously advocate for us, speaking loud and often of the great things we do, even our detractors concede this – but, sadly, we are not so important that we “make the cut” when it comes to government funding.

Make sure you develop shared aims and objectives with your TNE partner, the authors advise. Photo: pexels

"Even before the pandemic, there were signs of market discontent in traditional lines of business"

HE in advanced economies around the world ranks below Social Security, Health, Security and Defence, Primary and Secondary Schools and many other priorities.

This reality – exacerbated by the shift of HE from public good to private benefit and the impact of populist and nationalist movements driving politics globally – has serious implications for Higher Education exporting countries.

Whether deliberate or not, the neoliberal zeitgeist has positioned TNE as an exportable product to replace declining state appropriations and levelling domestic demand, as we outlined in our previous articles.

“TNE has increasingly become part of national trade and export strategies”

TNE has increasingly become part of national trade and export strategies, particularly for the UK and Australia.

Agencies such as the US Commerce Department and Commercial Service as well as the UK Department for International Trade and Austrade in Australia, working through embassies, play growing roles in assisting universities to identify favourable markets and partners abroad.

The involvement of the US states of Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York in negotiations with Hungary to allow continued operations of university branch campuses (Redden, 2017), or the recent ministerial agreement between the UK and Egypt for enabling UK universities to expand there, are further examples of the growing political and economic context of TNE.

We should not stand against seeking revenue, a common, knee jerk, reaction to TNE activities.

Indeed, without cash we have only dreams and a very long wish list but we do need to question the why and the how – not least because we can only operate in markets with consent and that usually requires clear mutual benefits.

With Covid having devastated budgets in both sending and receiving countries, we need to ensure that TNE is not seen simply as an “easy” export-led way of balancing the books when our cups no longer runneth over with overseas fee income.

Quality and assurance are key to this. Unilaterally self-asserting the quality of your TNE provision, with a cheery nod to home delivery quality measures, is not going to cut it with international policy makers nor potential students and their families.

Initiatives such as the Quality Beyond Borders Group, led by KHDA in Dubai, fosters cross-border dialogues in this area, and the recent TNE Quality Benchmark initiative from UK NARIC is another example of progress in this area.

So, as with much in “TNE World” there are foundations on which to build – and build we must.

Even before the pandemic, there were signs of market discontent in traditional lines of business – driven by a growing sense by overseas students that they were not welcome and that returns on their investment (of time and money) were declining rapidly (Baer, 2017), and the impact on some institutions and countries is becoming increasingly apparent.

TNE, then, has grown to be seen as a life preserver for many institutions. An increasing number have, just this past summer, grown their TNE presence or entered the TNE space for the first time, partnering with institutions and companies to deliver their programs to stranded students.

Many see this as more than a “temporary fix”, rather one that opens up their programs to students who never intended to travel abroad in the first place, and mitigate risks from challenges to the resumption of international travel.

We find ourselves now at a fork in the road – what began as institutions exporting their services, often aided by national strategies around soft power projection, are now forced to reexamine the sustainability, and desirability, whether to continue forging ahead with existing models or reimagining TNE engagement abroad with a firm view to adding value.

Institutions that want to successfully operate across borders must engage with these new realities of shifting political and economic relationships and increasing competition along with the opening of new markets and opportunities.

And similarly, quality assurance and qualifications recognition bodies overseeing the regulatory frameworks for TNE activities must be prepared and willing to respond flexibly and cooperatively to the growing complexity, variety and quanity of TNE.

There are already many examples of good practice and lessons learned on which it will be possible to build on to support the growth of quality and relevant TNE into the future.

A recent Universities UK International report identifies some key dimensions and good practice case studies. To which we would add our own, distilled from many hard yards and on the ground experience of delivery at scale in multiple jurisdictions across many disciplines:

Start with a clear TNE strategy that reflects your overall international strategy and Institutional Plan, that makes it clear to everyone from frontline academic staff to the finance director why you are doing TNE; this should be a PVC level responsibility

Make sure you develop shared aims and objectives with your partner – preferably over at least a five year period. Know what you are getting into and establish clarity about the longer term objectives of both parties.

Don’t be afraid of talking about money – the financial dynamics of TNE needs to be understood by both parties at the outset – it can even be a “loss leader” if it is recognised to be strategically important – trouble comes when people are not transparent.

Be consistent and patient – TNE is about trust and relationships, give people time to make this happen before you move on to the next project or expansion.

Understand that your partner is not you – so don’t expect them to share your obsessions. Their understanding of the market and their unique strengths are what gives the partnership strength, and each of you will have red-lines that cannot be compromised.

“TNE projects are difficult to deliver at scale and in ways that generate real benefits”

Show this is a shared endeavour – establish joint academic management committees, run joint conferences and seminars to showcase successes and share best practices – including between partners – don’t make the sending country the hub – we are part of the ecosystem not the sun around which partners orbit.

Put your best people on your TNE projects – they are difficult to deliver at scale and in ways that generate real benefits – if you are serious, invest your talent.

Build quality assurance into the product – by the time a periodic review has established its gone wrong it’s too late to put right without pain – and be ready to externally demonstrate your quality, not just self-asserting it.

To reprise an earlier article “these are a few of our favourite things”.

In our next article: “Where the rubber hits the road – and how not to hit a brick wall” we will dive into more details on what successful practice looks like and how practitioners respond to local and global contexts.

Read parts one and two, and four.

About the authors:

David Pilsbury is deputy vice-chancellor (International Development) at Coventry University, UK








Hillary Vance is assistant vice president – Southeast & South Asian Affairs at the University of Arizona, US








Fabrizio Trifiro is the head of Quality Benchmarking Services at UK NARIC









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