Five things you need to know about transnational education (TNE)


Transnational education (TNE) refers to educational provision that crosses national borders: programmes of study delivered outside of the country where the awarding body is based and those offered through international partnerships. It encompasses a wide range of different models: joint degrees, international branch campuses, franchised programmes, articulation arrangements, distance learning…and more.

The UK NARIC International Comparisons database now includes a section on Transnational Education for a growing number of countries, providing an overview of TNE within that country, how provision is regulated and whether programmes may be locally accredited. 

Here are five things we have learnt through our research into TNE around the world, which can help make sense of the current landscape

It’s not as new as you might think

TNE has become much more widespread since the early 2000s, but has been present in some countries for much longer.  It’s been common in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore since the 1980s.

Going back even further, the University of London established its external programmes in 1858; the first students took exams for their distance learning degree programmes outside of the UK mainland in the 1860s, when centres were set up in Gibraltar and Mauritius.

It’s everywhere, but not evenly distributed

We have received joint degrees offered by partnerships of universities from the Netherlands and Vietnam, France and Mexico, Ireland and Malaysia, China and Denmark, Sudan and Tanzania…to list just a few.

There is a private university in North Korea partly funded by individuals and organisations from outside its borders. Pacific Island states, such as Palau and the Marshall Islands, collaborate with the US. Distance learning is not confined by national borders; students all over the world can study degrees from any country where they are available to international students. There are very few places where there is no TNE provision at all.

However, looking more closely, the majority of TNE activity is concentrated within a smaller number of hotspots. The pattern of UK TNE exemplifies this: according to HESA, there are students studying for UK higher education qualifications in 228 countries and territories. However, from these, only 66 countries have over 1,000 UK TNE students and only 16 have more than 10,000. Latin America and North Africa in particular remain largely uncharted territory for UK TNE.

Categorising TNE can be useful, but has limitations

Reports on TNE often seek to classify provision in order to help us understand it. This can be useful for making sense of a complex landscape and for understanding trends, such as what types of partnership arrangements are most common.  Defining terms is often necessary; otherwise we talk about ‘collaborative provision’ or ‘twinning’ without ever establishing what we understand by these terms.

The typology of TNE programmes has become increasingly complex and the boundaries between different types of provision are less clear. Arrangements are often bespoke and designed to meet the specific needs of partners, countries and students and, as such, do not always fit neatly into categories.

For example, an international branch campus would not traditionally be viewed as ‘collaborative provision’, but many ‘branch campuses’ are established as ‘joint institutions’ in collaboration with a local partner. In another example, a joint programme could be based on both a franchise arrangement and an articulation agreement, rather than just one or the other.

Approaches to regulation and quality assurance vary between countries

We have conducted research into the regulation and accreditation of TNE in over 40 countries. We found a variety of different approaches used in multiple regions.

In some countries, such as Malaysia, TNE programmes are incorporated into the local system and subject to the same accreditation requirements as local programmes. In other countries, such as Greece, they are treated as foreign qualifications and must undergo the same recognition procedures as degrees gained overseas.

Different arrangements are often subject to different regulations; some forms of TNE tend to be more highly regulated than others. Joint degrees tend to be regulated within the national systems of all countries involved, whereas articulation/ top up programmes are often based purely on agreements between institutions.

Approaches to regulating outbound mobility of providers and programmes also vary. While some quality assurance systems cover qualifications offered outside of the country, the remit of others ends at national borders.

Recognition matters

Recognition can often be overlooked in discussions about TNE. In some cases, graduates may encounter issues when they apply to get their qualification recognised for employment or further study. This is a negative outcome for the individual and it can also be a barrier to the sustainability or expansion of TNE activity in a particular country.

Different countries have different approaches to recognition of TNE qualifications. It is important for TNE providers to be aware of recognition practices in the countries where they are offering programmes. For example, in some countries, degrees gained through distance learning may not recognised, or overseas degrees may not allow access to certain professions.

As part of our research into TNE, we look at quality assurance and regulations in both the host country, and the home countries of qualification providers. This informs our assessment of the TNE qualifications we receive, and is also useful information for TNE providers looking to develop partnerships or establish provision in a new country.

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