Does higher education + globalisation = transnational education?

By Nigel Healey –

For most of its relatively brief history, mass higher education in the UK has evolved along a quasi-Stalinist, command economy path. Post-Robbins, the report that paved the way for mass higher education in 1963, a university education was deemed to be a public good, with the benefits to society maximised by offering a place to ‘all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment’1. Public subsidies, in the form of grants (later subsidised loans) to students and tuition subsidies to universities, were designed to promote social inclusion and increase participation rates.

Because the government paid the subsidies, it not only set the unit price (total revenue to universities per student) but also the quantity (an enrolment cap). In addition, paying the piper empowered the government to call the tune in other areas of higher education, including widening participation and universities’ engagement with business.

The first crack in the command economy came, predictably, from the Thatcher government in 1980, when it baulked at paying tuition subsidies for large numbers of international students. A little remembered fact is that, during the late 1970s, UK universities enrolled large numbers of international students, who paid only a nominal administration fee and helped less popular universities fill their enrolment quotas.

The phased withdrawal of tuition subsidies for this group led to a collapse in international enrolments in the early 1980s. This was gradually reversed by the early 1990s, as universities realised that the price and quantity controls on international students had vanished and that, if they shifted their recruitment energies away from developing countries towards the fast-industrialising countries of South-East Asia, there were thousands of students willing to pay full-cost for a world-class education.

In hindsight, the Thatcher government’s decision transformed UK universities into hybrid beasts, with a domestic core that was part of the command economy and a growing international periphery that was marketised and unregulated. Along with Australian universities, which experienced a similar policy shift, UK universities rapidly became a market leader in global student recruitment, with international students accounting for 17% of total enrolments by 20112.

This shift of UK universities into export education has led, in turn, to further waves of even more ambitious internationalisation. Like global businesses, many universities have franchised their products (degrees) around the world, either licencing private providers to teach their curricula or ‘validating’ partners so that they can deliver their own qualifications with a UK university’s badge. A smaller number, notably Russell Group universities like Nottingham, Liverpool, Newcastle and Southampton have established international branch campuses offshore.

This so-called ‘transnational education’, namely providing degrees to students in their home markets, has excited the attention of UK policymakers. Taking education to students avoids the need for them to travel to the UK, allowing universities to expand overseas without becoming entangled in the immigration debate. Transnational education also enables UK universities to reach a much bigger market than through exports alone. The lower costs of in-country provision make a UK transnational education accessible to those who cannot afford to study in the UK, as well as those who, for cultural or practical reasons, do not want to leave their home countries. To support the growth of transnational education, UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) has set up an Education UK Unit, to help win transnational education contracts abroad.

It is very seductive to view transnational education as an inevitable next step in the globalisation of higher education. Isn’t this the parallel to the globalisation of business where, to paraphrase Herbert Hoover, the world now has a Toyota in every garage and Big Mac on every plate? Doesn’t franchising and validation represent the ‘McDonaldization of higher education’ for the mass market, with international branch campuses akin to the offshore subsidiaries of global corporations like BMW and Apple?

An alternative, darker view – in which the globalisation of higher education is no more unstoppable – is that transnational education represents a ‘new academic colonialism’, spreading the UK’s liberal scientific traditions around the world and, like the old colonialism, reaping the commercial benefits through the exercise of ‘soft power’ and the creation of foreign elites whose loyalties are tied, through their alma maters, to the UK.

There is another possibility, however. The present spread of transnational education may be a transitory phenomenon, driven by an alignment of passing forces: decades of UK higher education policy which have encouraged universities to look for expansion overseas rather than at home; governments in fast-growing developing economies desperate to satisfy the burgeoning demand for higher education by beckoning in foreign universities to mop up the excess demand; opportunist mercantilism by some host governments, encouraging foreign universities to set up in special educational hubs with the aim of earning export revenue from fee-paying students in nearby countries.

In this version of events, countervailing forces may be building that resist and eventually choke off the recent growth of transnational education. In the UK, academics and trades unions have become increasingly concerned that investment is offshore ventures may starve the home campus of sorely needed resources and management attention. In many key markets for transnational education, the local higher education systems are expanding and maturing. The new local universities may compete students away from UK franchises or, more usually, the franchise partners may be upgraded by their national regulators, acquiring degree-awarding powers and weaning themselves off their erstwhile UK ‘mothers’. International branch campuses are under constant pressure to ‘localise’ and the resulting pressure for secession may see them going the way of subsidiaries of earlier federal universities e.g. the Universities of Wales and London.

This alternative interpretation of events does not mean that higher education is not globalising. But the UK’s Premier League may provide a more compelling vision of the future than global corporations. Football is the ultimate meritocracy. A talented player, regardless of nationality, linguistic background or ethnicity, can rise to the top. The Premier League has players from every corner of the world and games are broadcast to 212 countries and territories, reaching an estimated 4.7bn fans3.

For soccer players, now read talented academics in a scientific world made ‘flat’ by the common medium of English. Similarly, for fans, read students. UK higher education is already one of the most internationalised in the world – 17% of students from outside the European Union (EU) and 21% of academics (40% of researchers) are of non-UK nationality4. For the premier league of UK higher education – Imperial, UCL, LSE – these percentages are much higher. Like the Premier League soccer clubs, the high wages and brand value that attracts the best and brightest from across the world to these universities is bound up with the location, the physical infrastructure, the history and academic culture created over generations, the legacy of past geniuses. These intangible assets cannot be easily reproduced in an overseas venture.

Interestingly, it may be that professional soccer has more to teach us about the future globalisation of higher education than global business. And so far, transnational soccer has yet to be coined as a term.

Nigel Healey is a Professor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International) at Nottingham Trent University. He is a board member of the UK Council for International Students Affairs (UKCISA) and represents international students on the UCAS Council. He chairs the organising committee for the QS-APPLE international education conference in the Asia-Pacific. His current research interest is the internationalisation of higher education, including transnational education.

Nottingham Trent University dates its origin to 1843, when the Nottingham Government School of Design opened its doors. This academic year, NTU’s School of Art and Design is marking its 170th anniversary with a series of exhibitions of the work of alumni and present and former staff. Today, NTU has 28,000 students (including 3,000 international students) in Nottinghamshire and over 5,000 transnational education students studying with overseas partners, many for joint and dual degrees.

  2. OECD (2013), Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators. OECD Publishers.

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