Offshore opportunity: protecting students in transnational education

As we develop our approach to regulating quality and standards, we’re making sure that protection extends beyond students studying in England, to those based overseas too.

Last year there were 360,000 students studying around the world for qualifications offered by English higher education providers. Indeed, many higher education providers are continuing to establish new and diverse international partnerships, delivering innovative teaching and research, and supporting student and staff mobility.

The OfS is here to protect the interests of those students, just as it does for those studying in England. Our job is to ensure that all students, whatever their background, have a fulfilling experience of higher education – that means we are committed to protecting those studying with an English provider outside this country through transnational education (TNE).

In practice, this involves seeking out and improving poor quality courses, wherever students are based. Students studying as part of a TNE arrangement are entitled to the same minimum level of quality and the same rigorous standards as students in the UK. Ensuring this remains the case will always be important. The UK higher education sector’s international reputation continues to attract students from across the globe, both to courses delivered inside the UK and overseas – with students drawn to the strength and quality of UK universities’ and colleges’ teaching and research.

Developing our approach

We already receive information which tells us about quality and standards in the overseas courses of registered providers. This includes reports made to us by providers, known as reportable events, notifications from students, staff and other third parties, and the data that providers are required to report about their TNE students in the aggregate offshore record returned to HESA each year.

But we want to do more.

Last week we published the second phase of our quality and standards consultation. It sets out detailed proposals about the minimum requirements we propose to put in place for quality and standards. And those proposals are explicit that all courses would be subject to the same minimum requirements to ensure that high quality courses can continue to flourish and grow, regardless of where in the world and how the courses are delivered.

Our proposals, while still principles- and risk-based, aim to bring clarity and transparency about how we regulate quality and standards. We would be able to regulate with confidence for all types of courses, including those delivered by distance learning, or through partnership arrangements, to students overseas, and intervene where we consider that courses are not of sufficient quality or where standards are not maintained.

Alongside the consultation, we will be working to raise the profile of the OfS’s regulatory role – for transnational education and more broadly – with stakeholders inside and outside of the UK. We want them to understand our approach to TNE, and how that fits within a wider UK model. This will include targeted engagement with UK-based and overseas government and regulatory bodies and sector representative groups. This focused activity will increase visibility of, and provide assurance about, our regulation of English providers operating overseas. It will also allow us to establish a fuller understanding of the sector’s TNE activities, to supplement the picture generated through our existing information sources.

We expect to launch the first phase of this activity next year, using and publishing data and case studies to explore the size and shape of English transnational education in more depth. A second phase is likely to focus more closely on transnational education within a particular territory or for a particular type of course or delivery approach. We also want to consider how we can extend the data we collect about TNE students so that it is in line with that available for UK-based students.

And while we are consulting on future approaches to regulating quality and standards, our existing regulatory requirements remain in place and we will take action where the evidence suggests this is necessary for TNE activity.

As we strengthen and develop our approach to regulating quality and standards, we remain committed to regulating in a way that allows a diverse, innovative and autonomous higher education sector to continue to have international reach and appeal. Set within the wider context of the UK’s rigorous regulatory arrangements, delivered by each of the four nations, this will maintain and enhance the reputation of higher education in the UK.


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Published 28 July 2021

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