Interest intensifies in UK degrees delivered overseas

Some fear offshore growth will slash the numbers coming to the UK to study. Hannah Fearn reports

April 23, 2009

The number of students studying UK degrees delivered overseas has rocketed.

According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, in 2007-08 there were almost 200,000 "offshore students" studying for UK degrees, thanks to the growth in popularity of distance-learning courses, overseas campuses and partnerships with foreign universities.

While so-called "transnational education" is a money-spinner for the higher education sector, the concern is that overseas provision may be growing at the expense of students travelling to study in the UK, a more lucrative proposition for universities because of the high fees they pay.

Half of the 200,000 students were enrolled on distance-learning courses, while just 7,000 were studying on campuses directly run by UK universities.

A further 89,000 were studying for qualifications offered jointly by British institutions and foreign partners.

William Lawton, policy adviser at the UK Higher Education International Unit, a body established to co-ordinate, promote and undertake activities designed to support the British higher education sector's global operations, said the statistics proved there was high demand for overseas provision.

Describing UK universities as the "pre-eminent" providers in the field, he said: "Competition in international education is fierce and the provision of transnational education, including offshore campuses and programmes, and joint degrees with international partners, is gaining momentum around the world."

A third of those studying for UK qualifications overseas were postgraduates. Just under half were based in Asia, and four countries accounted for 37 per cent of offshore provision - China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore.

A quarter of the students were based in the European Union.

Despite concerns about the knock-on effects of this growth, the Hesa figures show that students have also continued to come to the UK.

There were 342,790 international students in the UK in 2007-08 compared with 325,985 the previous year - an increase of 4.8 per cent. Chinese students made up 13 per cent of the numbers and 8 per cent came from India.

However, James Pitman, managing director of Study Group UK, said overseas provision would soon overtake the number of students travelling to the UK, even though the falling value of the pound has made the country a more affordable option for many foreign students.

"I can only see this trend accelerating because of visa issues and the economic situation," he said.

"It is much easier for students to study for very similar qualifications in their own country, where they have their family for support."

He also warned universities to choose partner institutions carefully when looking to expand their overseas operations.

"There are always risks. Universities, with their brand and reputation to protect, need to be very careful about who they partner with," he said.

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