One in six students at English universities taught overseas

Students living overseas now account for 16 per cent of all students registered at English universities and colleges, research from the Office for Students (OfS) finds, with China, Malaysia and Sri Lanka together accounting for nearly a third of all such transnational students.

A globe resting on an open book

The OfS’s latest Insight brief examines the scale of transnational education (TNE) in English higher education, focusing on how and where this learning is delivered and how the OfS’s risk-based regulatory approach ensures that students receive a high quality education wherever they study. In 2021-22, 146 English universities and colleges taught 455,000 students outside the UK. Just over two-thirds (69 per cent) of TNE students in 2021-22 were undergraduates, and the rest (31 per cent) were postgraduates.

Students overseas were taught in the following ways:

  • 27 per cent were taught by overseas partner organisations
  • 25 per cent were taught by distance, flexible or distributed learning
  • 6 per cent studied at English universities’ overseas branch campuses
  • 42 per cent were covered by other arrangements, including collaborative provision.

The 2021-22 figures show that over half (52 per cent) of TNE students in 2021-22 lived in Asia. Of these, 61,505 were based in China, representing around 14 per cent of TNE students and 2 per cent of students at OfS-registered universities and colleges. Malaysia and Sri Lanka had the second highest proportion of students, with 9 per cent and 8 per cent respectively of English universities’ total TNE population.

Figure 3 is a map showing most of Eurasia and Africa, with the UK in the top left hand corner and Indonesia at the bottom right. The countries and territories with the ten largest English TNE populations are coloured, including small coloured circles centred on Singapore and Hong Kong (which would otherwise be too small to be seen), and the populations listed as follows:
•	China 61,505
•	Malaysia 43,105
•	Sri Lanka 34,405
•	Singapore 23,290
•	Egypt 22,245
•	Hong Kong 18,575
•	Greece 18,185
•	Saudi Arabia 16,255
•	United Arab Emirates 13,160
•	Germany 12,100.

This map, taken from our latest Insight brief, shows the ten largest English transnational education populations as of 2021-22. Source: OfS internal analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency aggregate offshore record.

The OfS recently met with seven English universities to learn more about how they delivered TNE and how they ensure high quality education is delivered in practice. Universities spoke of the challenges they faced, which include subcontracting by overseas partner institutions making it more difficult to oversee all aspects of teaching, and issues relating to consumer rights for students living overseas.

Jean Arnold, OfS Director of Quality, said:

‘The significant number of students studying at English universities and colleges while living overseas is testament to the prestige of the UK sector on the world stage. It is important that transnational education provides a high quality education to students across the globe and helps improve equality of opportunity and sustainability in communities. This activity is also a substantial export activity; in 2020, transnational education contributed £2.3 billion to the £25.6 billion generated by education exports for the UK economy.

‘As transnational education continues to grow, an increasing number of universities and colleges are seeing it as a component of their plans to diversify and grow their income. Our regulatory remit is not limited to students located in England. It is important that students studying outside the UK are confident that their course is of the same high quality as would be the case if they were studying in England.

‘We are working with sector representative bodies and international regulators to improve understanding of how we regulate transnational education. This helps improve our understanding of TNE activity and its regional and global contexts. It also informs our approach to monitoring and intervention for the particular challenges that may arise for courses delivered overseas.

‘Transnational education is a vital and thriving part of our higher education sector. By underlining that it is robustly regulated to ensure quality we intend to maintain and enhance the reputation of English higher education at home and across the world.’

For further information contact 0117 905 7676 or [email protected].

Read our transnational education Insight brief


  1. The 10 countries with the greatest number of TNE students are: China (61,505 students); Malaysia (43,105 students); Sri Lanka (34,405 students); Singapore (23,290 students); Egypt (22,245 students); Hong Kong (18,575 students); Greece (18,185 students); Saudi Arabia (16,255 students); United Arab Emirates (13,160 students); and Germany (12,100 students).
  2. Alternative TNE arrangements may include: course-to-course credit transfer, a joint degree awarded jointly by two universities in partnership, a dual degree where two universities each award a qualification to a student, a franchising or subcontractual arrangement, or progression agreements where an overseas partner institution's course guarantees entry onto one of the registered provider's courses.
Published 25 May 2023

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