The future of transnational education



Are we witnessing the death throes of transnational education? At least within Australia, transnational education (TNE) has been a key aspect of the internationalisation strategies of tertiary institutions. Universities in other parts of the world have not all joined Australia in this activity. The Erasmus Programme has been an important tool for European internationalisation strategies whereas online provision has worked for private universities in the US and elsewhere. Online TNE delivery is a growing phenomenon by individual universities (Oxford Brookes) and consortia (Open Universities). Current market analysis leads us to believe that TNE programmes will continue to remain viable for the next decade or so, especially in China, India and rising developing countries such as Vietnam and Mexico. As other Third World nations develop large middle classes, and their governments seek to educate a growing affluent population, there will continue to be opportunities for niche TNE programmes to upskill the teaching staff of developing universities and to offer degrees and collaborative partnerships. Essentially, TNE is a model of educational delivery suited to a particular moment in a developing nation’s education system.

There are several models of TNE programmes. At its broadest definition, TNE is an education activity that crosses a national border. Initially fly-in-fly-out, face-to-face teaching for whole or ‘top up’ of diploma programmes to the bachelor degree level were the most common form of TNE. The early stages of TNE development are based upon relationships, often personal and idiosyncratic and sometimes unconnected to any strategic direction of either institution. In their useful transnationality index, Connelly, Garton and Olsen (Observatory, 2010) described a base position for TNE provision in which the creation of TNE programmes is largely opportunistic and may be lacking in integration with a university’s strategies, teaching and learning, quality and policy frameworks and may not be delivering comparable on and offshore academic and non-academic service provision, student experience, infrastructure, economic benefit and relevant staff professional development. These relationships often wither when staff members who initiated the relationship leave the institution or change roles, or when a new strategic direction is set for either institution.

Conversely, some TNE partnerships form the basis for eventual collaborative teaching and/or research partnerships, or pave the way for the establishment of offshore branch campuses. As markets mature, it would seem that – at least for governments of counties such as China and India – TNE is seen as adding less value than developing English language-only programmes or working with foreign universities to set up branch campuses under the host country’s legislation.

The development of the Australian international education market has included TNE relationships in a significant way (peaking in 2003 with 1569 programmes being delivered offshore). Being located in Asia, Australia had an early advantage (following the Columbo Plan in the 1950s) of aid programmes that developed into collaborative education activities between Australia and South East Asian institutions, especially in the 1980s. This operating knowledge of the South East Asian education market was later used to move into the burgeoning student markets of China and India as providers shifted from education as aid to education as trade. Progressive opening up of Asian and Middle Eastern nations allowed Australian institutions to compete with other significant and prestigious international education providers (such as the UK and US). Over time, some of this activity was replaced by the establishment of international branch campuses.

As information technology innovation and infrastructure continues to improve, computer-mediated provision of education (and blended learning) has increased and fully online courses are now routinely offered. Face-to-face programmes also spawned a franchise model where, for example, Murdoch University in 2011 franchised more than 20 new programmes to Kaplan in Singapore, and receives a royalty for the intellectual property of these programmes. This evolution underscores the ubiquity of learning content that can be sourced through the internet, where intellectual property is almost impossible to retain over any length of time. This increase in TNE enrolments for Australian offshore programmes pales alongside the growth in offshore student enrolments at international branch campuses.

Economic and policy changes have evolved in Australia and its international market alongside the evolution of TNE and, in part, have dictated its course. The model of education hubs by countries in Asia and the Middle East as well as their national five-year strategic plans attempted to meet as much as possible the internal demand for education have favoured the creation of branch and virtual campuses. The pull in the opposite direction now comes from consumer choice, brand reputation and student experience factors that we argue will increasingly influence student destination choice, type of award (and dual awards), the best international work experience programmes, and the ability for students to tailor their study experience to gain a unique set of skills and experiences.

Within Australia, international higher education grew largely through the international student visa regime that allowed international students who had worked in Australia for two years to apply for permanent residency. The resulting steady stream of international revenue throughout the past decade offset declines in government funding to public education institutions. The growth of international students ended abruptly in 2009 due to attacks on Indian students and subsequent government policy changes, leaving budget holes in many institutions. This was particularly acute in the Vocational Education and Training (VET) and English-language sectors. Further changes to visa regulations coupled with a high Australian dollar and ongoing global financial crisis concern in the US and UK has caused a more competitive international market to emerge. This has not stopped some Australian universities from seeking to recover and grow international student load by establishing new TNE programmes or new branch campuses overseas (for example, the University of Ballarat in India).

The inability for enormous education markets like China and India to provide a sufficient supply of education has meant that TNE, online provision of education and international mobility of students continue to grow. Additional elements of this international market are international branch campuses, the creation of regional education hubs such as in Singapore and consortia models of tertiary education provision, such as in Qatar. The conscious development of regional education hubs means that TNE models have further competition in markets where prestigious and highly ranked universities choose to establish a presence.

The future for most Australian universities (and most reputable universities worldwide) is as international universities. By this we mean that our universities will become part of a highly networked globalised education system. Brand positioning is currently and crudely dictated by rankings and in particular, research rankings. There is a powerful and predominant perception in the market that old western Ivy League (Russell Group/Group of 8) universities provide elite graduates who will become the top earners in their field. It is our contention that students increasingly want to graduate with international experience and that a global network of universities will appeal to a significant segment of the student population. NYU is one of the few universities to seek to provide this experience in-house with its own international studies centres and branch campuses. Its expansion will include Sydney. This is a bold and capital-intensive strategy, but we believe an excellent student experience can be achieved through tailored global programmes that draw upon the strengths of select partner institutions. This will require significant freeing up of course architecture and dual award rules within a complex foreign regulatory environment.

A significant challenge of the NYU multi-campus global university model is the difficulty in delivering on the brand promise of a consistently high-quality education and student experience driven by the home campus. In contrast, the multi-partner network model provides each student with a unique local experience which has the potential to create global citizens who have tailored their education experiences to their specific emerging professional and scholarly interests. This model of global students will allow our students to experience firsthand: through the network, or through virtual student learning collaborations, or through international work integrated learning and internships. Combined with blended and online learning formats, the future is an international student market concerned with the brand strength of their degree that has been earned through collaboration with high quality public or private local partners, in those parts of the world in which their discipline is most current or emerging. They will be prepared for a virtual working environment that is now commonplace among industry and the professions.

In conclusion, TNE is a form of educational delivery that commonly began as an aid programme to developing countries and created the experience and reputation of international universities, giving universities confidence to branch out. We predict that these settled forms of educational mobility will be redefined as students from developed and developing countries seek prestigious universities in countries such as China and India in which, for example, they will study medicine, engage in world-class research and become fluent global citizens. We predict that what began as a unidirectional model from the First to the Third World will become a linked, networked global experience involving multiple partners and awards. This international education and student mobility model will coexist (and increasingly become integrated with) online education content and single- and multi-branch campus experiences. TNE will be a part of the mix but largely confined to niche areas in developing education markets or as a form of entry-level institution-to-institution partnership.