20th February 2018

It is clear that there has been a shift in the UK Higher Education (HE) sector with a move towards a more diversified portfolio of educational opportunities, especially the growth of transnational education and international educational partnerships. This could be caused by a number of factors and I have outlined some of these and the potential opportunities that this shift presents.

Set against a background of demographic change in the UK, with an ongoing decrease in the number of traditional 18-20-year-old applicants, there is reported to be a five percent drop in applicants in 2017 across the sector, and a seven percent reduction in applications from the EU. For 19 year olds, numbers were down on average by nine percent and for 25 year olds, applications dropped were reduced by around 23 percent. Part-time and work based or non-degree study applicants fell by 55 percent between 2010 and 2015.

Until 2011, the number of students coming to the UK had been growing by three to four percent annually. Recently however this growth has slowed significantly. The drivers for this include the removal of the post study work Visa 2012,  international students having to evidence significantly higher levels of financial capacity, increased NHS charges, stricter rules around academic progression, increased minimum salary requirement for a Tier 2 Visa and tighter restrictions on the right to work for spouses and dependents. Arguably these barriers could make the UK a less desirable destination in comparison to other EU countries, Canada and Australia.

In conjunction with stagnating numbers of international students, we have also seen recent growth in alternative education providers in England and Wales. While the majority of these have relatively small student numbers, there are 115 providers catering for 52,000 students with a focus on widening participation.

Faced with this decline in traditional and EU/International direct recruitment and other external factors as above, many UK universities have changed their strategy to focus more firmly on global, in country provision alongside direct entry to make up the shortfall and minimise income reductions.

In June 2016 it was reported by HE Global that over 665, 000 students were studying a UK degree outside of the UK. The UK's offshore market in education is reported to be growing at more than five times the rate of the number of international students coming to the UK. Malaysia, Singapore, China and Hong Kong consistently in the top five where UK degrees are taught.

The offshoring of UK education has the capacity to fulfil a range of institutional aims other than the obvious one of providing an income stream. These include :

The potential to create global networks for students and staff

Students can be encouraged to engage with their subject or programme counterparts across the globe, improving their understanding of cross cultural issues, global business knowledge and networks and perhaps even their international employability. As such, the MBA programme at the University of Northampton offers students the opportunity to join a global MBA LinkedIn community which has over 400 members from all over the world. Current students and alumni discuss issues related to their study, their career goals, work related issues and the business environment. The use of interactive teaching technologies has the capacity to create the global classroom where all students can access real-time teaching and support,  and can engage with students and staff across partner institutions.

University academics can engage in conversations around pedagogy, and international approaches to teaching and learning. The scope for international collaboration on research projects is also evident. Student and faculty exchange programmes can improve understanding and experience of working and studying in different cultural and socio economic environments. Here at The University of Northampton we host a bi-annual partnership conference which offers the opportunity for staff form all academic areas and geographical locations to present their research and to work together on conference presentations and research paper in the field of global education.

Impacting widening participation

Offshore UK HE provision has the potential to reach students who could not otherwise afford a highly prized UK education. The average cost for education and living in the UK for international students is reported at around £22,000 a year.  In-country provision also allows UK universities to reach students who have financial, work, personal and or family commitments that would preclude them from travelling to study here.

The “halo effect” of UK universities and brands continues to be more highly regarded than many home country offerings. A 2012 study by the British Council highlighted that most employers (73 percent) in the United States and Canada considered UK degrees to be equal or better to those earned in North America.

Creation of Strategic, long term, sustainable Partnerships

The partnership model has the potential to create long term, robust relationships which can have a positive financial impact on home and host institutions, as well as the capacity to improve educational experiences for all involved.

It’s not all plain sailing

This is not to say that international partnerships in higher education are not without challenges. Assuring quality at a distance will always present potential difficulty although this can be overcome with early and on-going staff training and development. Good communication and support is also key. Partnerships are expensive to set up. While due diligence processes are costly, they are  essential to ensure the appropriateness and sustainability of agreements.

Although partnerships can offer a UK educational experience and qualification they will almost always be more expensive that home country alternatives, and students and local employers have to be convinced of the added value of the UK brand.

Overall it would appear that trans national educational partnerships have the potential to positively benefit all involved. The challenges that they pose are heavily outweighed by the prospective benefits to students, staff and educational institutions.

 Maggie Anderson is Head of Partnership Programmes, Senior Lecturer HRM & Organisational Behaviour at the University of Northampton