Time for long-overdue change and radical new directions for Transnational Education 4.0

This article was published on the Higher Education Policy Institute website on 21 November 2020.

This blog was kindly contributed by a team of four authors:

  • Chris Patton is Director of McKay Patton, a Principal Advisor with Wells Advisory, and a former PVC International for Southern Cross University and University of New England
  • Michael Wells is Founder and Managing Director of Wells Advisory, a former Commissioner of Australia’s higher education regulator TEQSA
  • Hamish Coates is a Tenured Professor at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education, Director of the Higher Education Division
  • David Pilsbury is Deputy Vice-Chancellor – International at Coventry University, Co-Chair of the UUKI DVC International group and TNE Commentator and Advisor

Transnational education (TNE) will look very different by 2030. COVID-19 has flattened ‘international education’ as an export industry for wealthy western economies and fuelled evolution of the new ‘global era’. Now is the time to understand and develop responses to this new phase of international engagement, its ramifications for education and institutions and the required transformations.

Building success in this new era means responding to:

  • rising Asian economic conditions;
  • the waning of globalisation as we know it;
  • restructured geopolitical arrangements; and
  • post-COVID economic and mobility constraints.

Institutional responses will need to consider:

  • optimal workforce structures and operating models for a new era;
  • planning frameworks to navigate clear futures in uncertain times;
  • scalable and technology-enabled systems and environments; and
  • differentiated investment and revenue strategies.

Since the mid-1990s, western economies have relied on exporting higher education as a means to sustain local and national systems. This model has been stretched over the last decade. Now, exacerbated by COVID, the cracks are not just showing, but opening up apace. Many Asian countries have already developed mature higher education systems with stable governance, young homegrown faculty, established career tracks and multilayered partnerships. Regional university brands are growing in step with resilient post-pandemic economies and, while prestigious Western brands retain their edge, stickiness will be tempered in coming years. China, already the world’s biggest system, is introducing sector-wide reforms that acknowledge this burgeoning new global era where the importing and exporting patterns of higher education are being inversed. This includes government reforms regarding foreign teachers, innovative structures for TNE and guidelines for accelerating the reform of graduate education. Such reforms will have an overarching impact on higher education worldwide.

As we head into a post-pandemic period, other areas of unease are beginning to surface as significant threats:

  • Source markets for international education are redirecting student flows to non-Major English Speaking Destination Countries and cheaper options, such as China, Sweden or Germany.
  • Travel troubles have disrupted student flows and, while partly offset by online delivery, have also impacted the capacity for faculty to visit and collaborate.
  • Wealthy-country universities have, in comparison to the private sector, belatedly and reluctantly reduced academic work-forces who teach considerable cohorts of foreign students, denting delivery continuity and potentially even medium-term capability and brand reputation, including in research.  However, the operating model has not changed, it has just been down-sized in hope of a return to ‘business as usual’ growth pre-COVID.
  • Asian students and their families have heightened concerns about travel safety, about living in countries with health uncertainties, and about the costs and increasingly the Return on Education of increasingly expensive foreign degrees. Savvy Asian parents are already onshoring future intentions, and ‘pipe-lines’.
  • Western universities accustomed to decades-long growth in international student demand increasingly priced themselves higher and higher during the halcyon days of international education.  An altered post-COVID-19 environment will put downward pressure on fees.
  • Governments and regulators are realising the huge and even existential limits of relying on foreign student tuition, often considerably overweight from less than a handful of countries, to sustain research, see https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/03/09/from-t-to-r-revisited-cross-subsidies-from-teaching-to-research-after-augar-and-the-2-4-rd-target/

Emergency arrangements patched in to sustain education across the first half of 2020 cranked important rachets which will prove difficult to reverse:

  • Students from Asian countries where perception of online learning as sub-standard, have adapted to online study as a matter of practicality, which may influence a more positive perception in the longer term.
  • With the blessing of governments, Western and Asian universities have struck major deals to house and support students while they study online, often for extended periods. These deals have bestowed formal equivalence between top-shelf universities, often long sought-after by still rapidly developing Asian partners.
  • Asian institutions, including private universities, are inverting from customer into owner. Major investors are buying up and knitting together talent development and delivery pipelines.
  • Resilient Asian economies and education are very attractive to students, many of whom prefer local cultures and employment networks, would prefer to divert available funds towards other opportunities, and in any case spend much time working hard online.
  • While some efforts have been made to relax regulations for international student visa requirements and eligibility to post-study work rights, there remains uncertainty about long-term policy settings which coupled with a politicised health environment wary of trans-border movements will further reduce student mobility.

The ‘norm core’ has been stretched, and snapped. Novel circumstances signal the need for new perspectives, partnerships, practices. More sophisticated strategies are required which take into consideration multiple, complex and emerging issues that impact higher education – one perspective is not enough and there is no longer a reliable lever to pull that guarantees prosperity in a post-pandemic world. Governments, regulators and university governing bodies need a coherent strategy that takes into consideration local economies, emerging technology, local and international regulations, geo-politics and transnational relationships, evolved teaching and learning styles and graduate prospects. Clear pointers will help institutions navigate the road ahead:

  • Transnational and cross-sectoral partnerships are required to deliver accredited and quality-assured education.
  • Increasing third party collaboration, partnerships and educational technology will characterize the higher education sector not least to improve and meet the expectations students have for their engagement and study experience in a digital world.
  • Clarity is required about the professional standing of university teachers, requiring the formulation of internationally aligned accreditation.
  • International quality governance and assurance is required, ensuring consistency and economies of scale.
  • Smart platforms and charismatic, industry-informed academic staff are needed for high-return mass-markets delivery.
  • Profitable international connections will flow from negotiating trusted partnerships with large technology firms and workplaces, with faster-to-market educational solutions being expected.
  • Established institutions need to reposition within more complex and contested value-chains, engaging students in broader enriching experiences.
  • Universities must reach down into the pipeline and use next-generation learner records to attract promising talents.
  • An institution’s reputation, its social licence to operate, will rest on its demonstrated contribution to community sustainability.

We must curate healthier, right-size institutions. Higher education has grown into a global business while running in many instances as though it is a cottage industry. Academic leaders are pressed to cope with rapidly growing demands from increasing regulation, turbulent markets, restrictive legacy staffing models, increasing politicisation, and constantly increasing expectations. Adding beige management layers without changing the model simply balloons cost and confusion about roles and responsibilities. Deep productivity reform is required, framed by deep international connectedness and shifting regional environments.

The game has changed. Universities which swiftly put in place the smartest arrangements will benefit most. Coherent actionable guidance is needed to translate the noise around international higher education into light that shows the path by which systematic business analysis is able to inform the development of sophisticated future-looking strategies that can be methodically and flexibly implemented.

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