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One in six students at English universities taught overseas – watchdog

One in six students registered at English universities and colleges are taught abroad, figures from the higher education watchdog reveal.

Some overseas partner institutions prioritise student numbers over quality and subcontracting can make it more difficult to oversee all aspects of the teaching, according to an Office for Students (OfS) report.

Research by the higher education regulator in England into the scale of transnational education (TNE) found that students living overseas now account for 16% of all students registered at English institutions.

In 2021-22, 146 English universities and colleges taught 455,000 students in other countries, and China had the highest proportion (14%) of TNE students (61,505 students in total).

More than one in four (27%) students abroad were taught by overseas partner organisations and a quarter (25%) were taught by distance, flexible or distributed learning.

Six per cent studied at English universities’ overseas branch campuses, with the remaining 42% covered by other arrangements, including collaborative provision, according to the OfS report.

TNE constitutes an increasing proportion of the teaching of many English universities to “an increasingly significant income stream,” the report says.

The watchdog engaged with seven English universities in July last year to learn more about how they ensure high quality education is delivered overseas.

Challenges identified by these universities included a preference on the part of some overseas partner institutions to prioritise student numbers over quality, as well as subcontracting by overseas partner institutions making it more difficult to oversee all aspects of the teaching.

Open University accounted for the latest population of students (46,300) living and studying overseas in 2021-22 – which equates to 10% of the total TNE population.

The University of London was responsible for 37,400 students (8% of the total) in 2021-22, and Coventry University for 21,400 (5%).

Jean Arnold, director of quality at the OfS, said: “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.

She added: “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.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) think tank, said: “This is fantastic news. Not everyone wants to move to study and not everyone can afford to do so.

“Transnational education allows people to get a trusted UK qualification without leaving their home. It also helps UK universities spread their wings without raising carbon emissions through lots of extra flights.”