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Is Chinese student TNE (transnational education) viable in the long-term?

April 7, 2021 |   Jasper Gill

The global pandemic of 2020 presented universities with a serious problem - how to prevent massive international student enrolment drop-offs due to travel restriction, and health and safety concerns of students.

Many institutions shifted their focus to remote learning, but some got more creative. In the Chinese student transnational education (TNE) space, Rutgers University was one of these, creating its Rutger Overseas Semester Experience (ROSE) initiative.

The positive response to ROSE has led to speculation TNE might be the way of the future, but whether it remains attractive to Chinese students comes down to a range of factors.

Chinese student TNE

TNE - education delivered in a country other than that in which the awarding institution is based - has existed in China for decades. During the 1970s and early 1980s as China began ‘opening up’, Chinese student TNE sprang up in the form of small-scale professional development courses offered by western institutions to help rapidly upskill China’s workforce.

TNE generally falls into two categories:

  1.  Joint programmes where Chinese students receive accreditation from both their home institution and/or the foreign institution.
  2. Joint institutions established in concert between the two country’s institutions.

Over the following decades, the UK and Australia, in particular, focused on China, so much so, that by 2017 Australia had six Chinese-Australian joint institutes and 108 joint programs, making it the third-largest partner country behind the US and the UK. This TNE growth led to greater oversight by Chinese authorities. Emphasis shifted further to TNE’s ability to contribute to internationalisation and play a role in addressing China’s rapidly evolving needs during wide-scale economic change. In 2016, the Chinese State Council issued its ‘Several Opinions on the Continued Opening Up of Education in the New Era’ (关于做好新时期教育对外开放工作的若干意见) (“the Opinions”), the main thrust of which was to more strictly regulate Chinese student TNE to improve the quality of education it provided.

A shift in TNE in China towards fully in-country (“4+0”) programs resulted from this, with the “3+1” model (three year’s study in China and one abroad), slowly being edged out by “4+0”, which reached 38% of all TNE by 2020.

While part of this change was due to COVID restrictions, given the recent history of Chinese student TNE, it appears part of a wider, more long-term change.

Key elements to TNE success

Notwithstanding the changes in the TNE model, it is important to understand several of its key elements to assess long-term viability.


Cooperation and partnership with a Chinese institution are crucial to success. Overseas institutions cannot independently develop and run education services, so maintaining a healthy, cooperative relationship is a “make-or-break” aspect of TNE. It should also be noted that the main location must be at the Chinese host institution rather than the TNE-provider location.

Staff movement

International staff must be invited or employed by a Chinese host institution, so foreign educators and institutions cannot provide education independently. Travel restrictions around COVID created further movement issues, leading to an increase in the use of staff on the ground in China. However, as COVID travel restrictions lift, maintaining free movement of staff and healthy cooperation between institutions will become more important once more.

Two-tiered regulation

The overarching governing body for Chinese student TNE is the Ministry of Education (MOE). However, TNE is approved and regulated by both provincial governments and the MOE, with the former obliged to report locally approved TNE activities to the latter. Navigating the nuances of this can prove difficult but are impossible to avoid, which is where, once again, cooperation between the institutions will prove invaluable.

A survey conducted in July 2018 by the Education and Research Section of the Australian Embassy in Beijing and the China Education Association for International Exchange supports the importance of these key elements, and identifies an extra element.

Asking institutions to name what they felt contributed to the success of their joint program or institute in China, three factors came up:

  1. Effective communication between the two institutions (cooperation);
  2. Support from leadership at both institutions (cooperation and staff movement); and
  3. How much the program appeals to Chinese students. This appeal can be tied to university brand, the extent to which an institution has researched and engaged with the Chinese student market; and the effectiveness of its digital marketing activity in China.

Case Study: Rutgers ‘ROSE-y’ success

A case study that illustrates a successful Chinese student TNE model comes from US institution, Rutgers University.

The Rutgers Overseas Semester Experience (ROSE) was conceived rapidly in response to what was at the time an outlook for long-term COVID travel restrictions.

Rutgers rolled out ROSE swiftly, implementing a TNE model of remote and in-person learning across three Chinese institutions. This meant that the program enabled students to interact with classmates in person in China and virtually via online sessions with classmates in New Jersey, creating a unified, integrated experience.

ROSE was a great success: Of the 400 students enrolled in first semester 2020, over 80% returned in second semester, with others wanting to join mid-year. Such could lead to the program becoming a permanent Rutgers’ offering.

“.. it worked out extremely well..., to the point where we want this kind of program to have a life after COVID wanes and we're in serious discussions about how to do that. We think [hybrid programs like ROSE are] something that's going to be part of the new normal.”

Rutgers’ Vice President for Global Affairs, Eric Garfunkel


Garfunkel identified the success of ROSE as being primarily due to:

  • The standard of education offered;
  • Having the right team on the ground and at Rutgers;
  • Forging and maintaining strong partnerships with Chinese institutions; and
  • Using Chinese Rutgers alumni as teachers and staff.

Rutgers is not alone in its success. EduCity, a complex in Malaysia housing three UK branch campuses and other institutions, proposed that international universities use its facilities to recruit and temporarily house Asian students interested in an overseas education who were not ready to travel long distances due to COVID. And Australia’s University of Wollongong used its Malaysian branch campus as a “stepping stone” for overseas students who could then finish their degree in Australia once border restrictions were lifted.

Challenges of TNE

TNE Programs like ROSE are not all easy sailing, with Garfunkel identifying some of the main challenges as being:

  • Getting internal buy-in from Rutgers.
  • Accreditation due to China traditionally not acknowledging degrees partially obtained online (exemptions
    made during the pandemic may change as the pandemic recedes.)
  • Course tailoring to ensure course offerings met a need in China and could be taught via a TNE model.
  • Health and safety concerns around the pandemic.
  • The logistics of managing student administration and welfare at a distance.

More broadly, other ongoing challenges include:

  • A shifting regulatory environment around Chinese student TNE, making it difficult to plan TNE too far ahead.
  • Operational challenges around the differing ways Chinese and international institutions are run.
  • Teacher recruitment and management primarily related to visa issues, regulation around foreign teachers qualifications and required proportions of foreign to domestic teachers.
  • Complexity of tax and payment processes in China.
  • Cyber-security and IT, affecting access to learning materials.

Will Chinese students embrace TNE in the future?

What Chinese student TNE looks like going forward remains up for debate.

ROSE clearly provides a concrete example of how TNE successfully operates as an attractive study option for Chinese students. And, as evidence of continued interest in TNE, Michael Bartlett, Global Managing Director, Education at Sannam S4 wrote for the Pie News in March 2021, that “TNE (has) found (its) growth trajectory significantly increased.”

With universities still in a position of being unable to resume comprehensive Chinese student recruitment activity for the foreseeable future, moving from 2+2 or 1+3 to 3+1 or 4+0 models remains attractive, albeit with associated challenges. It also risks some cannibalisation of traditional study abroad, although Bartless believes this can be averted, saying, “TNE programs raise the profile of the university and students become more familiar with the brand in-country, which results in more inquiring about going to the main campus.”

So, while the viability of Chinese student TNE in the long-term is not entirely clear, given TNE’s long history in China and considering recent successes such as ROSE, at least in the mid-term, it looks to be something of a fixture, offering great opportunities for international institutions that can steer a path between embracing its key elements and managing the challenges that come with it.

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