Throughout my career in transnational education and English language policy, the charges of cultural imperialism have never been far away. The term “transnational education”, or TNE, is regarded by some as a euphemism for money-grabbing foreign universities setting up overseas campuses that crush local provision and impose alien values on their host countries’ educational systems.
The dominance of English in global academic circles – both at scholarly conferences and, increasingly, in lecture theatres – is also seen as problematic. So for critics, that the biggest purveyors of TNE are from anglophone countries creates a culturally lethal cocktail.
TNE and English as a medium of instruction (EMI) are not culturally neutral phenomena, and yet debates around them miss the point. TNE is additive and necessary; it affects providers as much as recipients. The imperialism, to my mind, lies in thinking that we Brits still control English, and that it is a big deal whether people speak it or not.
British Council research has found that TNE is credited in host countries with increasing access to higher education and improving its overall quality. Host countries also expect it to assist in the development of local knowledge economies and to prompt more internationally collaborative research output.
The world needs far more high-quality tertiary-level provision than developing systems can generate from local provision, and TNE is one part of the solution. Furthermore, critics’ allegations of a one-size-fits-all approach are not accurate. I will chair a panel on the cultural challenges of TNE next week at the British Council’s annual Going Global conference for leaders of international higher education. The examples under discussion will reflect the realities of modern, diverse TNE: from a Russell Group business school in Dubai to a collaboration of 16 South Asian universities, to a UK/Australian/Pakistani partnership on curriculum development.
Transnational programmes cost more than other degree courses in the host country, but they are generally cheaper than they would be if the student travelled overseas to take them. TNE students can gain an internationally recognised qualification while avoiding the typically higher costs of living and the visa complexities of the institutions’ home countries. They can also combine work and study more easily, and remain close to their local jobs markets.
There is no reason why TNE has to be delivered in English. The domination of EMI is a symptom of a much bigger trend: English standards are rising globally through choices that governments are making. English is taught as a subject in many education systems and allowed as a medium of instruction in 53 per cent of public and 87 per cent of private primary schools, a 2015 British Council survey of 55 countries reveals. Young people also access English language material electronically on their own.
I know from experience that putting English language in the hands of young people, along with excellent study skills and critical perspectives on knowledge, gives them a powerful tool to build connections and a voice to decide their own future. If anything, the problem now lies with the UK’s system, which does not actively promote language learning from an early age, and therefore produces students who cannot compete with similarly educated young people from abroad with the cultural agility acquired by speaking two, three or often four languages.
I am not saying that the globalisation of higher education does not have any downsides, and everyone involved in TNE must be open about the risks and responsibilities that exploring this new frontier involves. One problem, for instance, is the unidimensional measures of excellence that drive the behaviour and resources of young institutions towards the “global research university” model.
We should also remain critically aware that TNE inevitably involves the export of cultural values. But this is not a unidirectional or a simple binary process. Those values are also being reshaped by exposure to the myriad local contexts in which universities are operating. This is why I believe TNE is making a so far modest but certainly positive contribution to global development.
Rebecca Hughes is director of education at the British Council.
Going Global 2015 takes place on 1‑2 June at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London. Times Higher Education is a media partner.