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Transnational education: challenges and opportunities

28 Feb 2024 | Professor Rafe Hallett; Professor Mark O’Hara Professor Rafe Hallett and Professor Mark O’Hara reflect on their experience working with colleagues from East Asia, China and the Middle East and North Africa to explore innovative approaches to transnational education.

An international dimension to the university experience can benefit students and staff. This can be achieved through a globalised curriculum, international placements and study abroad opportunities, but also through more formal structures of transnational programme delivery.

Transnational education (TNE) is an alternative approach to providing an international learning experience and is becoming a common feature within the portfolios of many UK higher education institutions (British Council & DAD, 2017), indicating the interest and innovation in this aspect of internationalisation. While these collaborative endeavours can be beneficial to staff, students and the profile of the institution, building successful and effective partnerships in this area is not without its challenges. Transnational education has been defined broadly as ‘education delivered in a country other than the country in which the awarding institution is based’ (UUK, 2020) but models for TNE are increasingly varied, and digital provision means that there are especially interesting overlaps and dependencies between TNE and online and ‘global classroom’ modes of education.

Expanding global reach

TNE activity allows awarding institutions to expand their global reach, establishing and growing their presence in other parts of the world. Depending on the model of TNE in question the activity may also constitute a means of doing so whilst avoiding potentially costly infrastructure investments. In an HE environment such as England in which student fee income has remained unchanged in the face of a decade of inflation, initiating TNE initiatives offers another way for HEIs to generate much-needed additional revenue streams. Tapping into new markets in this way makes it possible to engage extra students for whom study in the UK may have been impossible due to geographical, political and/or financial constraints.

Alongside any financial benefits for awarding institutions, transnational education also sets the scene for further collaborations between the HEIs involved including research collaboration, knowledge exchange and collaborative service learning, as well as professional and personal development opportunities for the staff teams and individuals involved. Exposure to different cultures and perspectives can enrich the intercultural competences of staff and thereby help ‘internationalise’ a university’s core curriculum design. Staff engaged in TNE will take refreshed pedagogies back to their existing programmes of study.


From a student perspective TNE agreements offer students access to what some might regard as value-added educational opportunities by achieving awards from highly-regarded international HEIs without the costs and other challenges associated with traveling and relocating. In addition, where those courses include flexible study options, such as online learning, part-time study and/or modularisation, students’ ability to balance their studies alongside any work, family or other commitments is enhanced. 

As with staff, so too with students when it comes to the personal, social and cultural benefits associated with TNE. Studying in a transnational environment exposes students to diverse cultures, languages and perspectives, affording them opportunities to hone their communication skills, adaptability and cross-cultural understanding. Engaging in TNE courses may also be seen as advantageous for students’ future career prospects if their studies help them to build networks and contacts with peers and professionals from different countries and facilitate access to global job markets. One of the most striking themes of TNE is the capacity it allows for students to engage in ‘international service learning’ projects, where they can connect the national and regional contexts of partner HEIs as they delve into themes such as sustainability, digital society and social inequality. 


Whilst the potential benefits associated with TNE are manifold, the activity is not without risk. Perhaps the most obvious of these is associated with the need for awarding institutions to be able to reliably assure the quality and consistency of academic standards across different TNE courses and campuses. Frequently, universities must navigate different regulatory frameworks, accreditation standards, educational practices and/or cultural expectations all of which can prove challenging to negotiate. Students participating in TNE programs may, for example, encounter challenges related to the recognition and accreditation of their qualifications in their home countries or other jurisdictions. TNE courses need to be recognised by the appropriate accrediting bodies or relevant authorities if universities are to safeguard the value and ‘portability’ of students' awards. 

The pedagogical considerations are likely to be accompanied by a parallel set of logistical and/or administrative hurdles which can include legal, financial, political and cultural considerations. Formal, degree-awarding TNE can intensify the risks associated with international student mobility more broadly. Visa regulations, staffing and student support are just a few of the issues that have to be thought through carefully. Adapting to new cultures of educational engagement can be a profound change for students; differences in language, customs, teaching styles, social norms and (in TNE that involves physical mobility) concerns about expenses, accommodation or home sickness may create adjustment difficulties. Offering scholarships, waivers, or part-time employment as well as designing proactive efforts to help international students build social networks and seek emotional support are just some of the ways in which HEIs can seek to ameliorate these risks.

Exploring opportunities and challenges has been the focus of the latest series of British Council International Learning Cohorts sessions, delivered throughout February and March in partnership with Advance HE. Welcoming cohorts of higher education institution leaders and experts from East Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, these sessions have explored different models of TNE and TNE innovation, and the discussions and learnings will further feed into the British Council’s new TNE Strategy. Designed through the British Council’s Going Global Partnerships programme, International Learning Cohorts aim to strengthen higher education collaboration by bringing together participants from the UK and other countries to engage in sustained dialogue and build a greater understanding around a prominent aspect of higher education, while networking virtually with peers around the globe.”

Ana Paula Booth, Senior Consultant Going Global Partnerships, Cultural Engagement, British Council

For more information on International Learning Cohorts, the British Council's TNE Strategy or the Going Global Partnerships programme, contact the British Council at:

Global and local contexts

Most striking, in the initial conversations, is a shared understanding of the need to respect place, and people, as we transpose and adapt models of education across global contexts. This need for local flexibility and relevance is counterbalanced by the requirement to set shared - or equivalent - academic standards and learning outcomes to frame the student learning experience rigorously. This balancing act requires great dexterity. Pedagogically, there is an emerging appetite for curriculum design that privileges ‘global classroom’ variations on project-based learning, joining cohorts from different countries to address authentic ‘global challenges’, and allowing each cohort to nuance their projects to mutual relevance and impact, across the TNE partner contexts.

Advance HE is delivering a British Council funded project exploring International HE and Transnational HE (TNE) with senior leaders representing universities in China, Malaysia, Myanmar, Egypt, Qatar and the Philippines.

This project is informed by Advance HE’s recently launched Internationalising Higher Education Framework which links the excitement of global education to our partner frameworks in relation to student success, employability and assessment, offering a global dimension to their recommendations.

TNE Networking Session, 26 March

As part of the project, we are hosting an online TNE Networking Session from 9:00am - 11.00am (UK Time) on Tuesday, 26 March. This will be an opportunity to liaise directly with the programme participants with a view to identifying areas of mutual benefit, for example, international student mobility agreements, digital TNE innovations and collaborative TNE curricula (eg international campuses, joint programmes and articulated programmes).

Please register your interest in attending here.


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