What Value is There in UK Transnational Education? Contextualising Individual Understandings of Educational Worth and Possibilities in Malaysia and Hong Kong

Dr I Lin Sin, Independent Scholar

Research Highlighted:

Sin, I.L., Leung, M.W.H., & Waters, J. (2019) Degrees of value: Comparing the contextual complexities of UK transnational education in Malaysia and Hong Kong. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 49(1), 132-148. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057925.2017.1390663

The rapid expansion of transnational education over the last two decades has seen an unprecedented growth of predominantly Western foreign universities delivering education in Asia. The United Kingdom (UK), the leading exporter of transnational education (TNE), has more tertiary-level international students pursuing a UK qualification overseas than within the UK, one in two of whom is based in Asia (Wake, 2019). The value of transnational education to these students (and graduates) is often overlooked. It is overshadowed by UK and wider literature which give more focus to the macro-economic value of TNE (see O’Mahony, 2014) and related marketing, development, management and delivery issues (e.g. Wilkins & Huisman 2019; Cai & Hall, 2016; Healey, 2016). Together with Maggi Leung and Johanna Waters, I set out to highlight the value of TNE to international students and graduates, particularly in Malaysia and Hong Kong where we had conducted our separate research exploring their lived experiences (e.g. Sin, 2013; Waters & Leung, 2012).

The idea for our paper came about after an e-mail exchange when we noticed notable similarities in our research findings. At that time, I had completed a study exploring the link between cultural capital, obtained through various modes of UK education, and the social mobility of middle-class Malaysians. Waters and Leung had comparable data from their project on UK TNE programmes in Hong Kong. The similarities between Malaysia and Hong Kong as transnational education contexts were and are still striking.

The UK dominates the provision of TNE in both former British colonies which aspire to be regional education hubs. Malaysia and Hong Kong rely heavily on transnational education to meet high demand for tertiary places which local public universities could not adequately meet. They are among the largest TNE markets for the UK, Malaysia (72485 TNE students in 2017/18) traditionally being the leading market (although recently surpassed by China) and Hong Kong (25675 TNE students in 2017/18) being in the top 7 (Wake 2019). UK TNE programmes are commonly marketed as cost effective for students who could not study wholly overseas but still seek a UK education and its associated benefits such as a competitive employability advantage and an international outlook. The programmes are promoted as similar to those offered at the parent or partner university in the UK in terms such as course content, academic standards and qualification awarded. However, we recognised from our own observations and findings that the transnational education landscape is far more complex and differentiated than what educational marketing discourses depict. The fact that UK transnational programmes are delivered in different institutional and host contexts with varying resources and opportunities suggested to us that there were finer contextual differences in TNE experiences waiting to be uncovered. This motivated our comparative inquiry.  

We sought to compare and contrast the value of transnational education as perceived by students and graduates in Malaysia and Hong Kong. Our central argument is that the transnational education landscape is uneven and examining contextual specificities is important to delayer the complexities and nuances of value ascribed to TNE at the everyday level.

We combined our data and thematically analysed findings from qualitative semi-structured interviews with 21 UK TNE students and graduates in Malaysia, and 70 students and graduates in Hong Kong. It has to be pointed out that our research scope stretches the usual boundaries of Chinese education mobilities. Firstly, our participants were non- or less-mobile students whose tertiary education were enabled by the cross-border mobility of UK programmes. Secondly, a few Malaysian participants were non-Chinese but generally exhibited characteristics that are typically linked to the Malaysian Chinese ethic of high aspirations, ambition and investment in education (Joseph 2014). Importantly, our comparative research sheds light on some of the finer-grained commonalities and variations in predominantly ethnic Chinese experiences of educational (im)mobilities across two traditional UK TNE contexts.

Our key contribution is contextualising traditional social closure theories to account for how transnational education has diversified and shifted individual understandings of the value of higher education. Drawing but departing from traditional positional and cultural capital approaches to higher education (Hirsch, 1976; Bourdieu, 1984), we showed that a higher and relatively exclusive higher education in the form of a UK TNE was generally a positional good as it improved economic and status opportunities for our participants relative to comparable others. However, this came at varying degrees of success as our participants noted the relative limitations of different TNE modes, programmes (e.g. overseas branch campus, franchised, twinning or distance learning programmes, etc.) and study providers. Our findings showed that TNE programmes in overseas branch campuses and well-established local partner institutions in Malaysia held greater positional value than those offered in smaller local institutions in both host contexts (typically franchised programmes from lower ranked, revenue-maximising UK institutions). Reasons for this include the wider availability of recognised full-degree programmes, more direct contact with UK staff, a more internationally diverse student community, the option of overseas study exchange and credit transfer, and better campuses, facilities and social activities that would enhance desired cultural and social capital (knowledge, skills, dispositions and networks).

Another key contribution of our paper is highlighting the under-researched value of transnational education as an intrinsic and personal good.  These aspects of value involve less pecuniary and positional considerations such as personal development and transformation, and the fulfilment of place-specific personal interests, obligations and commitments. As a whole, we offered more visibility and voice to diverse transnational students and graduates as they meet differentiated opportunities and barriers in transnational education and attach finer gradations and types of value to their education.

The paper has important implications for policy and practice. We called for greater quality assurance and a more socially responsible marketing and delivery of transnational education which are attuned to context specificities and the various positional, intrinsic and personal needs of students and graduates. The urgent task at hand is to address varying gaps between marketing rhetoric and educational reality across what is presently a highly inequitable transnational education landscape.  


Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Harvard University Press.

Cai, L., & Hall, C. (2016). Motivations, expectations, and experiences of expatriate academic staff on an international branch campus in China. Journal of Studies in International Education20(3), 207–222. https://doi.org/10.1177/1028315315623055

Healey, N. M. (2016). The challenges of leading an international branch campus: The “lived experience” of in-country senior managers. Journal of Studies in International Education20(1), 61–78. https://doi.org/10.1177/1028315315602928

Hirsch, F. (1976). The social limits to growth. Harvard University Press.

Joseph, C. (2014). Growing up female in multi-ethnic Malaysia. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315759081

O’Mohany, J. (2014). Enhancing student learning and teacher development in transnational education. The Higher Education Academy. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/enhancing-student-learning-and-teacher-development-transnational-education

Sin, I.L. (2013). Cultural capital and distinction: aspirations of the ‘other’ foreign student, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 34 (5-6), 848-867. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2013.816030

Wake, D. (2019). The scale of UK higher education transnational education 2017-18. Universities UK. https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Pages/The-Scale-of-UK-Higher-Education-Transnational-Education-2017-18.aspx

Waters, J., and Leung, M. W. H. (2012) Young people and the reproduction of disadvantage through transnational higher education in Hong Kong. Sociological Research Online 17 (3), 6. https://doi.org/10.5153/sro.2499

Wilkins, S., & Huisman, J. (2019). Institution strategy in transnational higher education: Late entrants in mature markets – the case of international branch campuses in the United Arab Emirates. Studies in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2019.1649386

Author biography

Dr. I Lin Sin is an independent scholar based in Glasgow. Her research primarily intersects higher education, social mobility and international migration, with a focus on privilege, inequality and disadvantage in transnational contexts. Her current research involves a collaborative project on the mobilities, positionalities and subjectivities of academic and teacher expatriates in Malaysia. She is also a UX researcher, applying her research skills in innovative ways to build a bridge between social science research and user experience design. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Edinburgh.

E-mail: sinilin@gmail.com

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