Say hello to the export model for international education

With US enrolment numbers falling off a cliff, the future is ripe for deep, cross-border partnerships between institutions, says Rick Shangraw

February 4, 2021
International students
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International enrolments at US colleges and universities dropped precipitously last autumn amid strict quarantine requirements and widespread concern and confusion about federal rules on living in the country while studying online. Overall, international enrolment dropped 16 per cent, while new enrolments fell off a cliff, dropping 43 per cent.

This followed years of decline or tepid growth in international enrolments. For decades, students from across the globe studied in a handful of countries − led by the US, and also including the UK, Australia and Canada − if they wanted a world-class education. Other countries had high-quality institutions, but they could generally only meet a small slice of the local demand. This is, to a large extent, still the case, with nine out of 10 students globally lacking access to a top-ranked university.

However, several factors − including less openness in US policy as well as the growing wealth of countries such as China and India, and their concomitant investments in higher education − have conspired to change that. Now, Covid-19 may force an accelerated shift to a new model for international education: a move from the import to the export model. In fact, this year has set a precedent for this, with one in five international students at US institutions, and more than half of new ones, studying online from their home countries.

Historically, efforts to export American higher education to other countries have been limited and have met with mixed success at best. We send significant numbers of US-trained PhDs back to their home countries but at nowhere near the levels needed to stand up institutions that could meet demand for US-style education. And branch campus models, like those in Qatar and the UAE, have generally come with exorbitant price tags and been met by significant red tape and disappointing enrolments.

THE Campus resource: How I fostered multilingual student discussion in asynchronous online classes

But this moment is ripe for a new export model: deep, cross-border partnerships between institutions.

This deep-partnership model could be considered one flavour of what is often called transnational education (TNE) and specifically transnational higher education. In this new model, a US university teams with a foreign institution to increase local access to post-secondary education by integrating educational offerings, conducting joint research projects and collaborating on projects with local corporations, NGOs and governmental organisations.

This approach would allow US institutions to take their educational programmes to new markets, reducing the need to bring students to them. One successful example of this model is the joint venture between Xi’an Jiaotong University in China and the University of Liverpool in England. The dual university, known as XJTLU, combines strengths from both parent institutions and extends access to their education programmes in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Undergraduate students earn two degrees: an XJTLU degree from the Chinese Ministry of Education and an internationally recognised degree from Liverpool.

That model could be especially promising for US institutions, allowing them to leverage their reputations to increase enrolments while also expanding access to high-quality education in countries with fewer post-secondary options. For many learners around the world, having a locally relevant degree and a US one would be an especially powerful differentiator in the job market − perhaps even more so than a US degree alone.

Networks of global institutions also hold great promise, allowing for shared intelligence, instructors, courses and even entire programmes. Especially in times of great turbulence, a network can anticipate shifts and deploy resources in ways that individual institutions often cannot. And advances in online delivery and pedagogy, tools for data sharing, technologies for shared course design and other technological advancements make robust international networks possible in ways they weren’t even a few years ago.

THE Campus resource: Supporting online collaboration in virtual exchanges

At its best, such a model could connect high-quality universities in the US with international partners looking to learn from them and ultimately deliver US-style education. This creates a win-win, driving innovation and quality improvement in regions around the world while opening up new student pools, revenue streams and even research and tech transfer opportunities for US institutions.

Global educational partnerships have been an integral part of the expansion strategy of Australian universities, particularly with institutions in South-east Asia. As many as one third of foreign students enrolled in Australian universities are enrolled offshore. These numbers are staggering compared with foreign enrolments in US universities, where almost 100 per cent of such students study onshore in the US during a typical year.

But five years from now, if institutions are strategic, this new way of doing things may well have become the norm. The export model, whether through one-to-one partnerships or networks, may in fact be the only way for most institutions to grow their international enrolments moving forward.

The future won’t be in bringing students to the US, but in taking high-quality US programmes to the institutions they already attend.

Rick Shangraw is president of Cintana Education, a founding partner of THE Campus, Times Higher Education’s new online teaching and learning resource platform.

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