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Opportunities and challenges in transnational education in China

The time is now for UK universities to jump into transnational education in China – but read this first

by Tom Clayburn
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A number of factors suggest conditions are right for transnational expansion for UK universities in China. But universities also need to consider the country’s unique cultural and regulatory environment

Approximately 500,000 students are enrolled in TNE in China. For the UK – not only a global leader in the provision of education but also a country with deep ties to China in the education sector – there are clear opportunities to take advantage of, particularly in the field of establishing joint educational programmes and initiatives. Nevertheless, there remain a number of opportunities and challenges that UK education institutions would be wise to pay attention to as they look to land or expand in the China market.


A number of factors suggest conditions are right for TNE expansion in China.

Firstly, at the most fundamental level, the demand for TNE is strong in China, strengthened by various local governments at both the provincial and municipal levels as part of their investment and development plans. The presence of international education – be it a university or international resources and talents – can significantly increase the status of lower-tier cities (i.e., those cities that are not among the largest, richest, or most international in China). As such, local governments are often willing to invest in international education collaboration to boost their attractiveness in the face of competition from other localities.

Within China, a quota system is used for universities’ enrolment of Chinese undergraduate students. TNE can operate outside of this system, however, and recent regulatory changes in this field further indicate the favourable treatment being given to joint educational programmes (JEPs) and joint educational institutions (JEIs). Specifically, the Ministry of Education is allowing them to accept a higher number of students, as long as the students are those who planned to study abroad but were not able to due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is true that China’s higher education sector can be a challenging environment for international entrants, yet entering China offers significant long-term business opportunities for those with the right combination of entry model, partner and location. An effective strategy underpins all of these and can help to set a university apart from competitors both foreign and domestic.

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Although conditions for engaging in JEPs and JEIs in China are positive, for international entrants, TNE expansion does not come without its challenges, as detailed below.

Misunderstanding the legislation
The Chinese regulatory environment is often difficult for international companies to navigate. National laws and regulations can be vague and even contradictory, leaving interpretation up to provincial-level education departments. Staying in regular communication with the relevant local departments to build up trust and gain their support is therefore critical.

Cultural clashes and ideological barriers
Mutual understanding of the meaning of academic freedom may also be a point of contention when working with Chinese partners. The Chinese government still maintains significant control over curricula and prohibits teaching in areas such as civil rights, civil society, and press freedom. Universities in the UK may have to be willing to compromise their current approach.

Employment risks and faculty turnover
In practice, it is often difficult to retain faculty members for several years, impacting running costs and affecting the JEP or JEI’s reputation. The cost and impact of staffing needs to be accurately calculated and a well-designed strategy needs to be put in place to sustain staff quality and stability.

Intellectual property protection
In recent years, both the UK and China have published laws and regulations covering intellectual property protection, data protection and national security in relation to investment. When collaborating on international projects, either party may not understand the other’s policies, hence both partners should outline areas of research and intellectual property creation, identify expected outputs, and understand any potential consequences that may arise before entering into an agreement.

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Taking into account the opportunities and points of consideration for TNE expansion in China, below are a selection of suggestions for moving forward.

Any entry strategy should have clear end goals: Before collaborating, a frank, clear discussion of any key issues that stand in the way of setting goals should be carried out. Similarly, a robust due diligence process should be implemented to track progress towards these goals, including quality assurance and quantitative KPIs.

Agree on a governance framework: For a JEP or JEI to be a success, shared objectives and common ground should be established early on, including the management of and division of responsibility for the institution, student recruitment, and marketing, among other key topics.

Treat new collaborative programmes like a start-up: New collaborative programmes should not depend on the existing reputations of the partner universities but should instead be treated like a start-up. This way, appropriate tools and frameworks can be adopted from the start.

Evaluate the project’s appeal: This appeal could be based on the strength of the UK university’s brand, which is partly a function of its present and previous marketing campaigns in China, or on the extent to which an institution has researched and engaged with the broader China market.

The information in this article is extracted from “Transnational Education in China Today,” the first in a series of reports available exclusively for subscribers of CBBC’s Comprehensive Higher Education Strategy Service (CHESS).

Click here to read more about the benefits of CHESS and how to sign up

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