Transnational education will resist the post-pandemic recruitment crunch

A global recession will accelerate the latest shift away from high-cost study destinations, say Janet Ilieva and David Pilsbury

February 27, 2021
A traveller in a face mask at a railway station in Suzhou, China, illustrating the downturn in Chinese international students post-Covid
Source: iStock

International higher education is at something of a crossroads in the Covid era. While lockdowns and border closures have raised considerable doubts about students’ ongoing willingness to travel thousands of miles to study, the mainstreaming of online provision has opened up new opportunities for cross-border instruction.

Although growing in absolute terms, the overall global proportion of students who travel overseas to study has remained at just 2 per cent over most of the past two decades. However, the most recent data show notable growth, particularly among students from non-OECD states.

One reason is the role of transnational education (TNE) pathways in widening participation, including by making international student mobility more affordable, particularly for those from low- and middle-income countries.

Affordability is also part of the explanation of why traditional receiving markets are losing market share. By 2018, the proportion of international students studying in OECD countries had declined from 77 per cent in 1998 to 70 per cent, with particular falls in the numbers going to Western Europe and North America. Conversely, notable increases have been recorded in East Asia and the Pacific (7 per cent) and Central and Eastern Europe (5 per cent), traditionally “sending” countries for international education.

A significant shift in demand towards these regions also happened in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, and an earlier increase in regional mobility towards East Asia and the Pacific in the early 2000s was linked to the Asian currency crisis of 1997.

It seems reasonable to speculate that a post-pandemic recession will accelerate the latest shift away from high-cost study destinations towards more affordable locations nearer to students’ home countries. However, while it will take another year to fully grasp the impact of the pandemic on international enrolments in traditional destinations, the short-term impact appears not to have been as bad as was first feared. An audience poll during a recent Times Higher Education session on international recruitment, for instance, found that international demand for UK university places has dipped by less than 25 per cent.

Universities with sophisticated global engagement strategies are particularly well equipped to weather the storm. Those with international partners and strong TNE pathways are able to support remote learners and provide a “campus”-style experience to local students unable to travel. Some UK and Australian institutions opened their domestic provision to students enrolled with international partners – which was highly valued locally. Moreover, many institutions argue that their international partnerships have been strengthened over the past year, and have extended beyond student recruitment to encompass broad academic, research and professional services alignment.

Recent figures show that 22 per cent of the UK’s non-EU entrants in 2018-19 started their degrees in their home countries. Similar research shows that 40 per cent of Chinese students are using TNE pathways (rising to 45 per cent for the Republic of Ireland). Recent changes to the UK’s post-study work routes also provide for students who started their courses overseas to work following graduation.

Universities’ growing interest in offshore pathways is demonstrated by the arrangement between NCUK, the international pathways provider, and the University of Auckland, enabling students in China to study at NCUK study centres and, if successful, continue their studies in New Zealand. Similarly, Oxford International Education Group provides digital pathways across three locations in China to degrees at Coventry University. The new MSM Pathways initiative will qualify students for entry to partner institutions in (initially) six destinations.

With its very different cost dynamics, TNE presents an opportunity to transform access to high-quality global education in price-sensitive countries. The fees that students pay for the proportion of their programmes based in the West are substantially higher than those for “traditional TNE” courses, such as collaborative delivery and franchised operations in students’ home countries. However, while the face-to-face element of TNE provision is essential to many students, it is impossible to imagine that the significant investments in online technologies and the development of online pedagogies will be dismantled when the pandemic is over.

Hence, online pathways to overseas degrees are likely to expand, primarily in the form of blended learning at branch campuses and partner institutions. Micro-credentials are also likely to be offered via such platforms, and regulatory frameworks may become more accommodating as it becomes clear that such new forms of delivery are not driven simply by Western universities’ efforts to reduce cost and enhance margin.

We have yet to see the gravitational pull that will emerge when China becomes a major player in the overseas market. However, engagement through TNE with the world’s emerging education hot spots, such as Vietnam, will ensure that universities in traditional international education destinations can offer a truly global education to students wherever they are.

Janet Ilieva is director and founder of Education Insight. David Pilsbury is deputy vice-chancellor (international development) at Coventry University.

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