Overseas enrolments surge at UK universities

Number of transnational learners up 9 per cent year-on-year

February 22, 2023
British Union Jack flag garlands in a street in London, UK
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More students are being educated abroad by UK universities, new figures reveal, although a majority of these are enrolled at just over a dozen institutions.

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show 532,460 transnational education (TNE) students were registered at UK institutions in 2021-22 – a 9 per cent rise on the year before, and about 100,000 more than in 2019-20.

Of those, a quarter studied via distance learning, a quarter at an overseas partner organisation and 7 per cent at a branch campus.

The remaining 42 per cent did so through collaborative provision which typically includes double and joint awards and franchised provisions.

Many students, particularly those in China, resorted to distance learning because of local Covid-19 lockdowns, Lil Bremermann-Richard, chief executive at Oxford International Group, told Times Higher Education.

Others may have been wary of travelling too far from home given the chances of being stuck because of another pandemic.

“Similarly, universities found themselves in a situation where they couldn’t reach out to students or welcome students for a long period of time, so enhancing locally delivered programmes is a way of protecting presence in that market,” Ms Bremermann-Richard said.

About half of all TNE students were enrolled at just 15 institutions – including 46,300 at the Open University, 37,400 at the University of London and 21,400 at Coventry University.

Ms Bremermann-Richard said universities like these have put in “tremendous effort and resources and now are delivering TNE at scale”.

“This is going to be, long term, very rewarding for the university, the local communities they are impacting and the UK opportunities for trade and diplomacy with those countries,” she added.

Universities UK said the rise in TNE students demonstrates the increasing significance of transnational education to institutions and to the UK government.

“TNE also helps to tackle global challenges, as well as playing an important role for participating countries by supporting capacity-building and addressing labour market needs,” a spokesperson added.

Just over half of the 168 providers with figures saw an increase in TNE learners in 2021-22.

The University of Essex saw the largest increase of all providers with at least 100 students, as it more than trebled its intake year-on-year from 315 to 1,085.

The university said this growth was due to the launch of its partnership with Aegean Omiros College in Greece.

The number of transnational students doubled at Liverpool John Moores University (from 7,620 to 14,925) and at the University of East London (UEL) (from 5,180 to 10,035), which said it has seen “unprecedented” growth in the TNE sector as part of its strategy.

A UEL spokesperson said it provided robust in-person and virtual education to overseas students, as well as investing in a new platform that supports them beyond graduation.

Within its international strategy, the University of Suffolk increased its number of TNE students from none three years ago to almost 5,000.

Stuart Agnew, associate professor and director of its Centre of Academic and International Partnerships, said the university has developed a number of strategic partnerships in Africa, Malta, Sri Lanka and Singapore in recent years.

There were also large increases at the University of the Highlands and Islands (91 per cent) and the University of Gloucestershire (85 per cent) – with many of these institutions seeing a sizeable uplift in the number of postgraduate taught students.

Almost a third of transnational learners nationally were PGT students – the highest proportion on record and double that of six years previously.

This has partly been caused by a “huge surge of new middle and upper middle classes in emerging economies”, according to Ms Bremermann-Richard, which has brought greater purchasing power.

The vast majority of UK transnational students are from outside the EU, with China, Malaysia and Sri Lanka accounting for 31 per cent of the total between them.

India and Vietnam saw the largest annual increases in numbers, while the US and Australia were among the biggest decreases.

“The space of online TNE is rapidly changing, and the traditional provision is challenged by alternative providers,” said Janet Ilieva, founder of research consultancy Education Insight.

“There is a growing demand for microcredentials and industry-tailored courses, which are sought after by employers.

“However, many national regulatory bodies are slow to recognise these types of education.”


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