‘Exit strategies’ needed in transnational education, experts say

Joint study by British Council and Universities UK International finds scale and significance of overseas delivery makes risk management increasingly important

May 17, 2024
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UK universities pursuing transnational education (TNE) should consider adopting “exit strategies” to avoid reputational or financial damage to their institution, according to a new report.

Delivery of courses overseas has become big business in recent years, with the sector reporting about 530,000 of these students in 2021-22 – a 9 per cent rise on the year before.

The scale and significance of TNE makes risk management increasingly important, according to a joint study by the British Council and Universities UK International.

Based on interviews with UK higher education institutions and British Council TNE experts, the report says that partnerships are more likely to succeed when universities define their strategic objectives for TNE before looking for a partner.

The study recommends that universities continually conduct effective due diligence on third parties to mitigate risks.

Several interviewees stressed the importance of developing an exit strategy and including it contractually from the outset of a partnership to mitigate against financial risk.

“It can be a very expensive mistake if we don’t get it right,” said one.

The contributors highlighted how “force majeure events”, such as geopolitical unrest or environmental crises, can affect TNE partnerships, often resulting in difficult decisions being made.

Freedom of speech is also highlighted as a risk, with TNE providers advised to avoid any “unwarranted behaviour” that could affect academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Despite its significant growth over the past decade, UK transnational education is not without risk – requiring a good understanding of the political environment and the motivations of a potential partner, said Maddalaine Ansell, director of education at the British Council.

“Time must be spent in developing the relationship, building trust and in establishing clear boundaries and expectations,” she added.

“The UK organisation must also think about its own risk appetite and red lines, so they are clear which opportunities are worth pursuing.”

Interviewees expressed “particular concern” over the ability of their university to support and protect those who identify as LGBTQ+ in certain TNE locations.

The report advises universities to consider appointing internal representatives to oversee TNE activities to improve research security management.

Despite the risks, the report maintains that UK institutions can enhance their TNE activity, expand their offering, and widen access to higher education internationally.

Sir Steve Smith, the UK’s international education champion, said: “Appropriate monitoring measures, as well as attention to ongoing relationships and shifting political contexts, [are] crucial to maintaining partnerships in the longer term.”

A previous report by the International Higher Education Commission found that while the UK has a lead in TNE over its global rivals, the country is yet to fulfil its full potential.


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Reader's comments (1)

"The UK organisation must also think about its own risk appetite and red lines, so they are clear which opportunities are worth pursuing.” True, but you would be hard pressed to find any university that is truly open to discussing this with all staff, do a SWOT analysis, and to accept a 'NO' as an answer due to human rights concerns and any number of risk that go with this.