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The Future of Universities: Filling The TNE Black Hole

Michael Peak, Research Manager for Education and Society at the British Council

Published in June 2013

What's next for universities? With the sector diversifying into online learning, not to mention the many varied opportunities offered by further and higher education colleges, it's become harder to say what a university will look like in the future. In March 2013, leading academics and experts, organisations, and international student leaders at Warwick Universities Summit 2013 tackled the issue of universities in 2025. Speakers from across the sector discussed topics such as funding and widening access, and what the value of the global public university should be in a rapidly developing world. Here, Michael Peak, Research Manager for Education and Society at the British Council offers his views.

Black hole

Transnational education (TNE) is increasingly seen as a growth area in international higher education (HE). ‘The shape of things to come’ forecast that international student mobility would slow over the years to 2020 but that overseas delivery of HE programmes (either through teaching partnerships with local providers or through international branch campuses) would grow in terms of the number of institutions participating, the variety of programmes on offer and the volume of students enrolling.

But little has been done to assess the impact of this form of education delivery on the host countries.

At Going Global, we presented our assessment of the evolution of TNE and the elements necessary to form an environment conducive to creating TNE opportunities. The main objectives and rationales for embracing TNE appear to have been met in the countries studied, and it is crucial that the ‘foreign’ institution is aware of the local cultural context and priorities for partnerships to have truly mutual and sustainable benefits.

Conducting this research was exploring ‘the TNE black hole’. For many host countries there is a lack of a clear strategic TNE policy, and related to this, there is a distinct lack of data at a national level on the institutions involved, and individuals enrolled, on TNE programmes.

Furthermore, it is incredible to consider that for an industry which is embraced by many nations, which reaches hundreds of thousands of students (in excess of 500,000 are enrolled on UK courses alone) there is very little in the way of an impact assessment.

TNE in its various forms can impact on individuals, institutions and nations in many areas:

  • Skills impact: TNE can help to fill skills gaps in host countries. The opportunities for skill development offered by TNE programmes making courses attractive to individual students and make TNE graduates attractive to potential employers and increase capacity. A possible flip side of this is that TNE could be seen to exacerbate brain drain, although through hosting TNEprogrammes some countries are positioning themselves as HE Hubs and indeed attract international students, and faculty, and retain local students.
  • Economic impact: TNE allows students to study (and gain international qualifications) whilst remaining in employment – having positive consequences for labour market efficiency and economic output.
  • Academic impact: Host country institutions can benefit from TNE partnerships with foreign providers through capacity building but TNE partnerships are most successful when structured for mutual benefit. By working in partnership they (could) effectively become more efficient, achieve more with the resources they have and provide opportunities to more students.
  • Socio-cultural impact: TNE can provide students and staff from both the host and the partner country with opportunities to gain an increased understanding of other cultures. A risk also has to be considered that the TNE activity could conflict with other host country higher education institutions (HEIs) and communities; and that ‘Western-centric’ approaches could be seen to be imposed on local HE systems.

The British Council is in a position to conduct some research into gauging the impact that TNE can have on the host nations, host institutions and individual students. But agencies and stakeholders must work together to increase the systematic collection of data and to improve the evidence base in this area.


For more from the Knowledge Centre's Global Universities Summit blog, which focussed on the issues in higher education ahead of the 2013 Global University Summit, please click here.

The Global University Summit 2013 was hosted by the University of Warwick in Whitehall, London.

Image: Illustration of a black hole. Source (Flickr).


Michael PeakMichael Peak is Research Manager for Education and Society, at the British Council. Since 2005, he has been researching international higher education for the Council and has developed and and managed research projects covering different aspects of international education including investigating student motivations, forecasting international student mobility patterns and researching global higher education policy.
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