The 2021/22 HESA return recorded 510,835 students studying for a UK degree via transnational education (TNE), an increase of 12.7% on 2020/21. TNE is now delivered in 228 countries and territories by 162 UK higher education providers. It’s a substantial and growing sector.
The pandemic might well have had an impact of recent rapid growth by providing an alternative way to access UK universities in a period when travel was restricted. However, growth since 2007/08 when HESA first collated data on TNE shows significant and sustained growth that looks set to continue.
TNE requires the navigation of new legal and policy environments as well as the management of complex social and cultural environments. And yet, university governing bodies are often not well cited on existing or planned TNE. Where governing bodies are kept informed, the focus has historically been on financial and reputational risks linked to quality. And with some significant, expensive high-profile failures over the years, these risks are key.
The focus, however, misses some of the most challenging and contentious areas of delivery, to highlight just a few:
- Teaching in countries where cultural norms are at odds with institutional values
- Protecting academic freedoms and freedom of speech in restrictive regimes
- Navigating environments where diversity is not celebrated, and in some cases environments where those with protected characteristics are not supported and not able to be there authentic selves within the law (the LGBTQ+ community, those with mental or physical disabilities, women)
- Managing fraud and corruption
- Working in environments where labour laws or health and safety legislation do not afford staff and students the same protections that we would expect
These are the tough conversations but they reflect the challenges of leading TNE. Yet according to research they are not the conversations which governing bodies are being exposed to.
Many universities do not regularly or consistently review the operation or leadership of TNE ventures or consistently evaluate the changing environments in which TNE is delivered. In short, the approach to governance is inconsistent or, in some cases, non-existent in one of the most contentious areas of delivery.
TNE is primarily delivered by the Global North to the Majority World, meeting the needs of developing economies where student demand well outstrips national provision. Done well, TNE has the potential to be the ultimate mechanism for a global approach to widening participation. It removes many of the barriers to access for an ever more diverse community of international students to engage in UK HE. For many of us it’s also one of the most rewarding and fascinating areas of provision. But at its worst, TNE risks replicating systemic injustices that we have battled to overcome on our home campuses. Those relating to diversity, inclusion and belonging.
With the UK International Education Strategy focusing on priority countries: India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Nigeria (with focus also being on Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan, Europe, China and Hong Kong) TNE will no doubt continue to be challenging to navigate.
What is clear is that TNE is one of the most complex areas of provision and one which should surely have greater not lesser oversight by university governing bodies. Activity delivered overseas is by its very nature, ‘out of sight’ but should be at the forefront of the minds of governing bodies.
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