Transnational education – which includes ventures such as branch campuses, joint degrees and the validation of overseas courses - has been promoted by the universities and science minister David Willetts.
UK universities had established 25 branch campuses by 2012, according to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, in countries including China, the United Arab Emirates, India and Malaysia.
In 2010-11 there were 291,595 students studying overseas on programmes validated by UK institutions.
But so far there has been “little national data” produced on whether such ventures benefit host countries economically or whether the quality of higher education is boosted, according to the pilot British Council study, released today.
One of the study’s leaders, Jane Knight, an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto, said it was important to establish an “evidence base” before “claims about the benefits” of transnational education were aired.
However, based on interviews with students, graduates and experts in ten host countries, who were not necessarily on UK programmes, “the overall impression is one of growth and a relatively positive perception” about transnational education, the report, Preliminary Findings from Research Project on the Impact of TNE on Host Countries, says.
The courses were “generally meeting skills gaps” of host countries “particularly at master’s level”, it says.
“The strongest contribution of TNE is the potential for capacity building at the institutional/program level in terms of quality assurance processes, teaching methods, program management, and distance education,” the report argues.
Yet it found evidence that transnational education was “exacerbating brain drain and in some case not meeting technical and science skills gaps”.
The report also cited concerns about “Western-centric programs” on offer.
Professor Knight said that she said been “a little bit dismayed” by the lack of policies and frameworks to accommodate foreign universities in the countries surveyed.
In addition, respondents had been “disappointed” that the collaborations had not enhanced research activity more, she said.
Furthermore, only one in four of the students surveyed had actually gone to study abroad during their course, a figure she was “very surprised” at.
She also argued that the idea that branch campuses were set up to make money for the home university was a “myth”, citing an anonymous example of one campus that had been open for 14 years, but had yet to turn a profit.