One of the fastest growing and most dynamic forms of internationalised higher education in the world will not reach its full potential without international agreement on how to keep track of it, a new report warns.
Hundreds of thousands of students across the globe are enrolled on transnational education (TNE) courses offered in their home country by hundreds of universities from dozens of countries ranging from the UK to Venezuela.
But currently there are no international standards for defining and monitoring TNE so that governments, agencies and universities can keep an eye on student numbers, types of courses, and quality assurance arrangements.
TNE takes many forms - from twinning, joint and double degree programmes in collaboration with host country universities and colleges, to bi-national universities jointly established by sending and host countries, to branch campuses set up and run independently by foreign universities.
The UK is the leading provider of TNE programmes in the world, with approximately 360,000 students actively enrolled, involving around 80 per cent of UK universities. All indications are that TNE continues to expand at a brisk pace across the world.
But while TNE continues to expand and develop, data collection systems used by government agencies for keeping track of student numbers and the way TNE is delivered and regulated have failed to keep pace, a study by the British Council and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) has found.
Research into the way TNE is monitored in ten host countries shows that varying terminology and approaches to data collection and reporting is putting hurdles in the way of gathering reliable information on student numbers, types of programmes, and quality assurance arrangements.
A report on the findings says there is “confusion within and among countries about what the different types or modes of TNE actually mean and involve”. In some countries “the overall concept of TNE is not clearly understood at national policy level, leading to confusion from the top down”.
A common TNE categorisation framework for clearly defining the various modes of TNE and enabling the collection of programme and enrolment data is urgently needed. Such a framework will require significant leadership at national government level and will require coordination between national government agencies, non-governmental higher education associations, higher education institutions engaged in TNE activities, and international governmental agencies such as the OECD and UNESCO, the report recommends.
Creating a framework will be challenging because different countries are at different stages in the development of TNE, and have different approaches to monitoring it, with some currently integrating TNE data collection with general higher education statistics.
However, according to report co-author, John McNamara, “from the interviews conducted and information request responses received, it is apparent that there is genuine appetite for national government bodies to learn how they can improve their TNE data collection systems, particularly for countries at a relatively early stage of collecting the data”.
Professor Rebecca Hughes, Director of Education at the British Council, said "TNE can play a vital role in addressing one of the most important challenges of the 21st century; how to provide enough of the high quality tertiary education that young people, businesses, and governments need and are demanding. We believe that TNE is expanding rapidly to meet that demand, but it’s also increasingly vital that providers and hosts agree a common means of collecting and categorising data to inform its future expansion and models of delivery. Without this the full benefits and potential impact of TNE cannot be judged; and UK, as the world’s current leading provider, needs to remain at the vanguard of evidence based internationalisation.”
The report provides guidelines and examples of good practice for countries wishing to improve or establish a TNE data collection system. The report concludes with a set of recommendations targeted at different national and international TNE stakeholders based on the British Council/DAAD research on developing the proposed TNE categorisation framework, including TNE terminology and definitions, consultation with key organisations, and addressing technical and staff training issues.
Keeping track of TNE is becoming more important to inform decisions at a policy level, and at an institutional level as different types of programmes are being developed, the report adds.
Dorothea Rüland, Secretary General of the DAAD who co-commissioned the research, said: "The study brings us one step further towards the common goal to create reliable and comparable data on global TNE activity. We invite our international partners to join the effort for an international data collection protocol which will enable a better understanding and employment of TNE for the mutual benefit of the global community.”