Chang­ing transna­tional routes

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - Matt Durnin is global head of in­sights and con­sul­tancy at the Bri­tish Coun­cil.

Over the past decade, transna­tional ed­u­ca­tion (TNE) has be­come a cor­ner­stone of UK uni­ver­si­ties’ in­ter­na­tional work. About three times as many stu­dents were reg­is­tered on UK cour­ses de­liv­ered over­seas in 2016-17 as were reg­is­tered a decade ear­lier, with the to­tal ap­proach­ing 300,000 (ex­clud­ing dis­tance learn­ers and sta­tis­ti­cal out­liers).

This growth has not come eas­ily. TNE part­ner­ships are time-con­sum­ing and ex­pen­sive to set up and main­tain, and cost re­cov­ery is of­ten im­peded by low tu­ition fees. Bud­gets shift back into the black when stu­dents move on to UK por­tions of the course, so as long as this “ar­tic­u­la­tion”, as it is of­ten known, keeps pace with growth in over­seas en­rol­ments, TNE should be sus­tain­able. How­ever, our anal­y­sis sug­gests that TNE mo­bil­ity is fall­ing, with ar­tic­u­la­tions mak­ing up a much smaller por­tion of new en­rol­ments than many in the sec­tor be­lieve. If this is true, it’s time for a re­think about how and why we in­vest in over­seas de­liv­ery.

The Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Statis­tics Agency does not sup­ply data specif­i­cally on UK en­rol­ments com­ing through TNE. How­ever, we can es­ti­mate the num­ber of stu­dents ar­tic­u­lat­ing by track­ing the num­ber of first-year un­der­grad­u­ates who are not in the first year of their pro­grammes. This method also cap­tures credit-recog­ni­tion agree­ments, but it should ap­prox­i­mate the over­all trend – and the story it tells is not en­cour­ag­ing.

The num­ber of in­ter­na­tional ar­tic­u­la­tions to the UK ap­pears to have dropped by a fifth since its peak in 2010-11. This group now makes up only about 20 per cent of new in­ter­na­tional en­rol­ments, down from nearly 30 per cent six years ear­lier.

So why have ar­tic­u­la­tions de­clined at a time when off­shore un­der­grad­u­ate en­rol­ments have grown? Three fac­tors stand out: reg­u­la­tory tight­en­ing, in­creased price sen­si­tiv­ity and the mat­u­ra­tion of key mar­kets.

Con­trary to ex­pec­ta­tions, TNE reg­u­la­tions in key po­ten­tial mar­kets have not eased. In some cases, they have tight­ened con­sid­er­ably. In China, for in­stance, UK off­shore en­rol­ments have grown by two-thirds over the past five years, but the num­ber of stu­dents trans­fer­ring to the UK has risen by only a mea­gre 2.5 per cent over the same pe­riod. This is likely be­cause of reg­u­la­tory changes that have man­dated a shift to de­liv­er­ing more course con­tent in China. In ad­di­tion, in other ma­jor po­ten­tial TNE mar­kets such as In­dia, re­stric­tions on pro­grammes de­liv­ered by for­eign en­ti­ties have not been loos­ened.

While ar­tic­u­la­tions to the UK held up through the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis, the sub­se­quent crash in the price of com­modi­ties seems to have had an equal, if not more se­vere, im­pact. This can be seen in the fact that ar­tic­u­lat­ing stu­dents have been on a largely down­ward trend since 2009-10. It sug­gests that TNE has not func­tioned as an al­ter­na­tive path­way for mo­bil­ity in dis­tressed mar­kets and may be more sen­si­tive to eco­nomic con­di­tions than full-de­gree over­seas study.

Mo­bil­ity through TNE has also been dented by the mat­u­ra­tion of ma­jor mar­kets such as Sin­ga­pore and Hong Kong. The per­cent­age of trans­fer/ar­tic­u­la­tion stu­dents among all in­com­ing first-de­gree stu­dents fell sharply from 2002 to 2008 and has not re­cov­ered since.

None of this means that TNE is a dead or dy­ing ac­tiv­ity. To the con­trary, as eco­nomic and geopo­lit­i­cal power shifts east­ward over the next decade, Western uni­ver­si­ties will be chal­lenged to build their rep­u­ta­tions and de­liv­ery based on a more glob­alised model. For many in­sti­tu­tions, TNE will be the pri­mary av­enue to en­sur­ing their con­tin­ued rel­e­vance.

Yet the mo­bil­ity pat­terns and fi­nan­cial real­i­ties of the next phase of TNE are likely to be starkly dif­fer­ent from what the sec­tor has ex­pe­ri­enced over the past 10 years. To suc­ceed, uni­ver­si­ties will have to make more crit­i­cal as­sess­ments of the ben­e­fits of po­ten­tial part­ner­ships, in­clud­ing more grounded ex­pec­ta­tions about mo­bil­ity pay-offs.

Whereas TNE may once have served to broaden mo­bil­ity path­ways, in the fu­ture it will func­tion best as a plat­form for UK uni­ver­si­ties to build deeper col­lab­o­ra­tions with over­seas en­ti­ties, fea­tur­ing two-way mo­bil­ity, re­search col­lab­o­ra­tion and en­gage­ment with in­dus­try. The next era of transna­tional ed­u­ca­tion will re­quire cre­ative ap­proaches to de­liv­ery, as well as a will­ing­ness to re-ex­am­ine many of the busi­ness truths that the sec­tor falsely be­lieves to be self-ev­i­dent.

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