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Governance news: The scale of UK HE transnational education

10 Dec 2019 | David Williams Transnational higher education (TNHE) is an important part of the provision offered by the higher education sector. The 2017-18 data suggests there was a fall for the first time in the total number of TNHE students but it is as yet unclear whether this reflects a permanent break in trend. Governing bodies of institutions engaged in, or are considering expanding their TNHE provision, will want to carefully consider the latest analysis.

What is TNHE?

Transnational higher education (TNHE) is defined as the delivery of degrees in countries other than where the awarding provider is based. TNHE students enrolled on programmes leading to a UK award will be studying overseas. Modes of delivery include, for example, the use of branch campuses, distance learning and blended learning (i.e. mixed modes of delivery). For 2017-18, the total TNHE student numbers were 693,695.

An overview

Using data collected by the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA), Universities UK International (UUKi) – the international arm of Universities UK – has issued its third annual report on the scale of TNHE.

In the 2017-18 academic year, the number of higher education providers increased (from 138 to 139), but for the first time since data was collected (2013-14), there was a decrease in the total number of TNHE students (-2.0%; 14,220 fewer students than in 2016-17).

In 2017-18, TNHE was delivered in 225 countries and territories: Asia accounting for 49.5% of all students, followed by Africa (21.5%). By country, China hosted most students (10.9% of the total; 75,925 students), followed by Malaysia (10.4%, 72,480) and Singapore (6.5%, 44,805).

Two-thirds of all branch campuses are located in Asia, with a further quarter of branch campuses being located in the Middle East. Student numbers in the Middle East are heavily concentrated in Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Geographically, student numbers grew rapidly in the European Union and China. Numbers in several other regions and host countries were either stagnant or declined.

When compared to the preceding year, numbers of students studying at an overseas campus grew by 10.7%. Numbers on distance learning programmes also grew.

The three largest providers

Three providers – Oxford Brookes University, the Open University and the University of London – accounted for 52.1% of the total number of TNHE students. The UUKi report summarises the provision offered by each of these providers (see page 6 of the report).

If the three main providers are excluded, TNE student numbers rose by 2.0% in 2017-18. However, year-on-year growth fell below the average of 5% registered in each of the three preceding years.

Excluding the three main providers, most students study through collaborative provision (44.3%), followed by distance, flexible and distributive learning (20.7%).

Variations by geographical region and host country

The report shows considerable variation to changes in student numbers by geographical area and patterns of study. The report offers a detailed breakdown, including trend analysis, host countries, types of provision and level of study by following geographical regions:

  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Australasia
  • European Union
  • Europe (non-EU)
  • The Middle East
  • North America
  • South America


The authors of the UUKi report believe it is too early to predict with confidence whether growth for TNHE has permanently changed. However, institutional leaders and governing bodies will find the UUKi report of interest when considering their own plans in relation to different host nations and market segments as the report offers a nuanced picture for 2017-18, with growth in some markets and decline in others.


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