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Is there a future for UK transnational education in China?

  • 21 April 2023
  • By Robert Partridge
  • This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Robert Partridge, Executive Director of Student and Academic Services at the University of Glasgow.

Over the pandemic years, the number of students enrolled on degrees taught outside the UK has continued to grow. According to UUKi’s 2020/21 report, there were over half a million students enrolled in transnational education (TNE) degrees: a 13% increase on the previous year. Around half of provision is located within Asia, with China hosting the largest number by some margin. Seemingly, there is opportunity for further growth in China, as demand from students and government for Sino-foreign degrees continues unabated.

Insofar as it is possible to determine, the UK appears to be head and shoulders above other country systems in the range and scale of its TNE operations. However, whilst many UK universities are engaged in some form of TNE, 50% of total provision is delivered by just 15 institutions. The prevailing approach of UK universities is one of partnership, leading to new and distinctive educational models, which draw on the strengths of each system (such as Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University). Contrast this with the prevailing US model, which is to establish branch campuses (such as New York University in Shanghai, Abu Dhabi etc).

Other English-speaking countries are keen to get in on the act: the educational strategies of both the Australian and Canadian governments describe their intent to grow TNE substantially. With Australian ambitions firmly in mind, it is noteworthy that, for the first time in 2019, the UK dropped to third place as a global study destination, with Australia moving into second place behind the USA.

Meanwhile, there are those who speculate that the golden age of TNE could be over. For example, Professor Nigel Healey has pointed out that the post-pandemic world feels less connected and globally minded. It seems plausible that national interests, not least security-related, may militate against further development of TNE.

We have seen growing signs of this from the USA, where academic staff report on the chilling effects of government policy, meaning that it is increasingly difficult them for to pursue research and teaching with Chinese partners. Here in the UK, export controls are beginning to impact not only on UK-foreign research degree delivery, but also on undergraduate education.

While the USA and UK are renegotiating their relationships with China, new Sino-foreign collaborations are emerging with Russian and Israeli universities, and the Hong Kong universities extend their own reach within mainland China. And, of course, Chinese universities look outwards: Xiamen University may have been the first mainland university to establish its own branch campus, in Malaysia.

The UK Government’s current attitude towards TNE, in particular as it relates to China, is difficult to fathom. The UK and its universities derive great value from the research power of Chinese diaspora staff and students, particularly in the field of engineering. Likewise, university communities are enriched by the Chinese students who chose to pursue degrees in the UK. In a post-pandemic world which seems more divided than ever, we will need to find the right line between the protection of national interests and our belief in education as a social good.


HEPI’s other recent output on China includes:

1 comment

  1. Denis Blight AO says:

    Have this and other reviews examined the financial viability of off-shore campuses. Is that viability dependent on subsidy from onshore institutions or government? Are they justified by a favourable impact on enrolments of full fee paying students into onshore campuses?

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