Transnational education: What impact on local institutions?



At the recently held Going Global 2013 conference organized by the British Council in Dubai, transnational education (TNE) featured prominently in the various sessions. We heard about the impulse for universities in the developed world to set up branch campuses in other countries; about the rationales for countries to attract international branch campuses with a view to creating a knowledge hub; about the challenges faced by the branch campuses and about the experiences of students attending them. Little, however, was said about the impact of TNE on local higher education institutions, especially public ones.

It is unquestionable that TNE can play a vital role in increasing access to higher education in developing countries, which find it difficult to publicly fund further expansion of their higher education sector. TNE also helps in making international education accessible locally, thus helping to reduce both brain drain and foreign currency outflow. TNE further helps to internationalize the higher education sector.

In at least one of the sessions of the conference the point was made that an important requirement for a country to promote TNE and seek to become a knowledge hub is to have a strong, local higher education sector. This is the situation for countries such as Hong Kong (China), Malaysia and Singapore which have successfully developed knowledge hubs. But what about countries such as Botswana, Mauritius and Sri Lanka, aspiring to create knowledge hubs? Is their higher education sector robust enough to compete with TNE institutions? Will TNE in those countries help to strengthen the local sector, or weaken and marginalize it?

The main purpose of TNE is to attract local students as well as foreign ones from the surrounding region. Affluent students will obviously prefer to enroll in the TNE institutions which have an international trademark, leaving the public institutions, that are already cash-strapped, to cater to the poorer students. Graduate employability is another concern. Will not local employers give preference to graduates from TNE institutions? There is a danger that graduate unemployment from public institutions, that is already quite high in many developing countries, may increase. This might well create a greater social divide, with all the social implications. Foreign students, too, will have a preference for TNE institutions rather than the local ones, and this might negatively affect the internationalization strategies of the local institutions. There is no doubt that, at least initially, TNE institutions are serious competitors to local institutions for student recruitment, local and foreign.

TNE providers generally pay their faculty well. They can therefore be in a position to offer enticing salaries to the best-qualified (but poorly-paid) faculty from local public institutions. TNE institutions also often outsource faculty from local institutions on a part-time basis. Local institutions in most developing countries face the challenge of recruiting and retaining good faculty, and the presence of TNE may worsen their situation. More importantly, the shortage of good faculty can have a negative impact on the research output, which is already low, of public institutions. Very few TNE institutions conduct research or run PhD programs.

But the most serious implication might be that governments, attracted by the idea of knowledge hubs and the presence in their countries of international branch campuses, may decide to limit their support to local public institutions, leaving further development of their higher education sector solely in the hands of TNE. The long-term consequences of such a situation could be serious. Generally, TNE institutions plan for short-term benefits and are often transient. It is the local institutions that not only provide teaching and learning to their students, often in non-marketable areas shunned by TNE but vital for the country, but also undertake research and provide community service in order to assist in national development, both short- and long-term.

Higher education is not just a commodity, it is also a public good, and this must be appreciated by governments. It is therefore vital for governments, while including TNE in their higher education development strategy, to continue to provide support to their local institutions so as to build a vibrant local higher education sector. On their side, TNE institutions must ensure that they do not weaken and marginalize the local institutions, and should make every effort to collaborate with them so that both sectors can flourish side by side.

There is hardly any study that has been carried out on the impact of TNE on local institutions. This is an area that must be researched, and country studies carried out, as TNE is now becoming a global phenomenon and will inevitably expand significantly in the years ahead.