It is time global universities stopped treating transnational education (TNE) as the “little sister” to traditional forms of international student enrolment and made it central to international higher education in ways it hasn’t been before the COVID-19 pandemic, an expert on student mobility in different parts of the world told this year’s International Higher Education Forum (IHEF) 2020 organised by Universities UK International.
University World News is a media partner of the forum.
Professor Jenny Lee, professor of education policy studies and practice at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona in the United States, is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
She was speaking to the IHEF 2020 online from lockdown in South Africa in a session billed as ‘Managing risk: Assessing hidden risks in transnational education operations’ on Wednesday 22 April.
Lee said she preferred to emphasise the opportunities that the coronavirus crisis offered to put TNE into the mainstream of international higher education.
TNE as ‘little sister’
“For too long transnational education has been the little sister to traditional forms of international student enrolment, which institutions rely heavily upon to subsidise operation costs.
“TNE offers vast potential and now is the time to make the case,” she said.
Rather than assessing immediate risk and discussing how to react to the COVID-19 crisis, Lee suggested universities need to be “visionary in terms of where resources go and envision transnational education as central to international higher education in ways it hasn’t been prior to the pandemic”.
She urged institutions to look to Africa “where millions are denied access to higher education and where the population is booming” instead of relying on recruiting international students from more affluent parts of the world.
Risk of physical mobility
“The physical mobility of students has been the biggest risk that universities have been engaging in for quite some time and we now know the consequences of putting so much expectation on the mobility of students from China as well as India and other parts of the world to subsidise our operations.
“The weakness with the current focus on physical international mobility is that it draws on a small fraction of individuals for students and revenue, and competition is intensifying for the same narrow group of students.”
However, Lee told University World News that institutions from the US, UK and Global North need to tread more carefully when looking to collaborate with new markets.
Not a one-way venture
“African institutions are increasingly leery of neocolonial pursuits from the North that do not respectfully consider the wealth of knowledge that African universities already offer. It’s not a one-way venture and while there are definite demands for higher education, there’s much that Africa can teach the rest of the world.”
She also urged universities from richer countries to be realistic about the available infrastructure in the locations where they were launching TNE activities.
“There are widely varying degrees of internet access. Many students may have fast internet while on campus, but may be quite limited in what they can access from home. Also, classes should be flexible to accommodate as many students as possible.”
Lee urged the international higher education community to ask key questions, beyond logistical operations, such as:
• How will this partner country benefit?
• In what ways is this partnership building local capacity?
• How does this class or curriculum apply to this context?
• Who are the local experts to partner with?
Lee, who co-wrote a blog for University World News last week with Brent White on ‘The future of international HE in a post-mobility world’, said: “Prior to the pandemic, higher education was having to respond to anti-immigration policies, travel bans, limits to research collaboration, restrictions on work visas and international engagement.
“All of these things traditional higher education was reacting to, but not really taking into account what international higher education can become.
“I believe TNE is a way to transcend some of these political agendas and barriers without physical mobility.”
Lessons from Malaysia
In an earlier session of this year’s IHEF on Monday 20 April, Dr Janet Ilieva, director of Education Insight, said that international higher education should learn lessons from countries like Malaysia, which turned previous external shocks, such as the Southeast Asia currency crisis in 1997-98, the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the global financial meltdown of 2007-08 into opportunities to expand its higher education capacity, partly by encouraging transnational education activities.
In 1995, currency outflows by Malaysian students studying abroad were reported to be contributing 12% to the country’s current account deficit.
The currency crisis in 1997 led to a sharp fall in outbound students, which declined from 60,000 to 45,000 between 1998 and 2001, said Ilieva.
“In response Malaysia opened its higher education system to allow branch campuses, including Monash in 1998 and Nottingham in 2000, and encouraged TNE.
“The government sought to improve domestic higher education through private provision as a means to reduce currency outflows and has turned itself into a popular study destination with over 130,000 international students and has become the 11th largest host country for international students globally.”
Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He also provides English-language communication support for European universities and specialist higher education media.