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OBHE study: Transnational education vs international student mobility: Substitutes or distinct markets?

While the provision of transnational education (TNE) is growing globally through outsourced programmes, partnerships and online platforms, the question as to what is happening with ‘traditional’ student mobility remains. Is it affected and how by the rise of TNE? This question is increasingly placed at the heart of research on higher education and internationalisation, and it is among the core ones in a recent study which bears the title ‘Transnational Education vs International Student Mobility: Substitutes or Distinct Markets?’, conducted by Vangelis Tsiligiris, Principal of MBS College of Crete, and published by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE). 

The study focuses on the UK as the major export country of TNE and on its top four TNE host countries: China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. Using the quantitative data from HESA and UNESCO and the qualitative data obtained in interviews with TNE experts in the four host countries, the research looks into how much TNE acts as a substitute to international student mobility in cases of these countries. More specifically, it investigates the factors that affect students’ choice between TNE and going abroad, compares TNE and overall (inbound and outbound) international student mobility trends in the four host countries, and looks into the impact of TNE trends on the number of students from the four countries studying in the UK. 

The findings of the study do not indicate any clear substitution effect of TNE on outbound student mobility, but they do point to a significant role of TNE in building higher education capacity in host countries. While exporting countries are driven by an additional source of income and by expanding their activities in the light of the growing global competition for international students, in host countries TNE is mostly the result of a lack of capacities, quality or funds in their own higher education systems. In some of these countries it is the perceived reputation of an overseas higher education institution and its international ranking that students choose when deciding on where to study. In China, for example, students are attracted to TNE because of the combination of a culturally more familiar setting ‘flavoured up’ by a pinch of foreign experience. 

According to the author of the study, in this light TNE should “be considered carefully as part of a well thought out international business strategy rather than as a peripheral activity. This involves exploring the current phase of the market lifecycle as well as longer term market developments in transnational education host countries”. 

More information about the study can be found on the OBHE website