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Changes in UK-China transnational education partnerships: What’s driving the shift?

  • 19 July 2023
  • By Leina Shi and Eduardo Ramos

Since the 1990s, China has enacted state policy that has encouraged Chinese institutions of higher learning to cooperate with foreign institutions of higher learning, setting up joint programmes and institutes, which now reach over 1,400 active partnerships at the bachelor’s degree level and above. This is known as ‘Chinese-foreign cooperation in running schools’ in China and transnational education (TNE) in the UK.

UK universities have become partners of choice for Chinese universities in the development of joint institutes and joint programmes, but the relative weight of the UK is decreasing. While cooperation with UK partners accounted for more than one fifth of all Chinese-foreign joint programmes and institutes at the end of 2019 – it represented only 12 per cent of approvals from 2020 onwards. 

Source: Ministry of Education

Does this slowdown mark an end to a golden era of higher education collaborations between China and the UK? Not necessarily. We argue that it is more an indicator of the transforming nature of educational co-operations, and that policy makers and universities need to consider these changes in their planning.

Quality of education in China

The first transformation is related to quality. The policy of openness to international collaboration was partly driven by a desire to build capacity in higher education in China – or in other words, to enhance the quality of the education provided to students through alignment with international learning and teaching quality standards.

This practice has arguably contributed to remarkable improvements in the quality of education offered by Chinese universities, but as the quality of provision improves, students are more likely to remain in China for their studies, while Chinese universities will become more attractive for international students and staff. This may affect the ‘partner up’ model that has fostered growth in the last two decades and impact on the pace of growth of joint institutes and joint programmes with UK institutions.

Location of provision

The second transformational factor relates to the development of Chinese cities and regions other than the main areas of early industrialisation (the so-called second and third tier cities). At the start of the golden era of TNE partnerships, there was an understandable concentration of resources in large, industrialised areas. Nottingham Ningbo Campus opened its doors in 2004 and joint programmes and institutes were launched in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Suzhou or Xi’an, usually located in Eastern coastal areas.

With the growth of China into a major industrialised nation, the Ministry of Education has strongly encouraged transnational education in comparatively less developed areas such as central and western China since the mid-2010s. This has resulted in the share of TNE partnerships in China’s largest cities falling sharply – for example, Shanghai accounted for 10 per cent of approved TNE partnerships in 2014 and earlier, compared to just 3 per cent of partnerships approved from 2015 onwards.

Source: Ministry of Education

(Note: Heilongjiang was very active in the initial wave of TNE approvals, but the majority of these partnerships were not sustainable and have since been closed)

UK’s international education policy

The third factor of transformation is the UK’s own internal policy of diversification in higher education collaboration. The UK launched a new International Education Strategy with ambitious goals, including attracting 600,000+ international students to the UK and reaching £35 billion  in education exports by 2030.

The strategy also aims to diversify the range of partners, determined by the need to develop a more resilient higher education industry, with more TNE partnerships in countries with favourable demographic, economic and political conditions, but where there has been little growth in the number of students or range of partnerships.


Increased quality and diversification in both China and the UK may have contributed to a slowdown in the application or approval of new joint programmes and institutes, but they do not explain what this slowdown may mean for the future, and bring us to the original question: is this part of a wider trend, or a temporary readjustment?

A new model may require creative ways of developing joint programmes and institutes that incentivise reciprocal shorter-term mobility, or virtual mobility, and that extends to postgraduate teaching and learning, including research degrees. It may also benefit from a more flexible recognition of digital and non-formal learning, and be more open to an increasing diversification in the student body, including students from third countries attracted to China as a quality but lower cost study destination.

One example is the ‘four one thirds’ policy put in place in China that has fostered a ‘fly in, fly out’ teaching model based on intensive modular teaching by academic staff travelling from the UK. Although international academic mobility is undeniably a good thing, more flexibility may be required to foster innovative ways of teaching and learning that include digital components, especially at the postgraduate level.

The UK may also look into a possible review of its International Education Strategy’s focus. The review may adopt a more holistic approach to international collaboration in higher education and scientific research that expands beyond an export model to one of reciprocal exchange and mutual benefit. This could include, for instance, the establishment of KPIs that are linked to the SDGs, or to the achievement of local development needs.

The common challenges faced by both societies would seem to indicate that the need for mutually beneficial partnerships is not decreasing, but rather the opposite. From green energy to global citizenship, the ambition to provide students with the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to face those challenges is shared by higher education institutions in both countries. With the right policies and strategies in place, China and the UK may be on track to enter a new era of high quality and sustainable collaborations in higher education.

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1 comment

  1. Professor David Law says:

    This expert commentary is valuable but, as with any blog posting, there was no space to consider intricacy. As the graph shows, 2022 was the best year for UK approvals for many years. This was a ‘bounce back’ year, and for other countries as well. The unwritten ‘rule’ operated by MoE is also important: no new approval until the most immediate previous collaboration has been successfully reviewed. However, the main point I would make is that there has been an accelerating trend to take account of the QS rankings. Universities that are not in the top 500 will have more difficulties than those who are (another unwritten precept). UK universities in the upper bracket, for the most part, already have JEI/JEP or have chosen not to go down that path.

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