Duke Kunshan University, Kunshan, China
A building with a pond in front.

Why Today’s Universities Need to Be Global Institutions

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our ongoing exploration of how design is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Across the globe, universities that are grappling with the COVID-19 health crisis are also facing a potential financial crisis due to the loss of international students that many of these institutions have come to rely upon as a vital source of funding. In the U.K., a fifth of all higher education students — roughly 500,000 in 2017-2018 — are international. This has great economic benefit to universities and economies. In the U.K., the higher fees that international students pay for tuition, living expenses, and other spending, have a net economic impact of around £20 billion a year, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute. And international students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

As universities and schools have closed temporarily to curb the spread of COVID-19, heads of institutions and other educational leaders have had to quickly innovate and switch to online learning, while many students are unsure if they will graduate. These impacts, along with Brexit, could may well mean that there will be a decline in the next four to five years in the number of international students.

How can universities mitigate this potential downturn in their balance sheets, funding, and business models? The answer is transnational education. According to the British Council, transnational education (TNE) means “providing access for students to study towards a foreign qualification without leaving their own country,” meaning that education programmes and providers can cross national and regional borders.

To succeed in time of economic uncertainty, universities will need to branch outside their country of origin and become global institutions. Making their education available for wider groups of people across the world through cross-border initiatives like TNE will help higher education institutions grow enrollment and staff and expand their campuses.

There are several types of transnational education that can be grouped in two main approaches: independent and collaborative. Independent TNE accounts for any franchise and international branch campus programmes. Collaborative programmes, like partnerships or joint universities, involve two institutions — one local and one foreign — who both develop the programme together.

Not only do universities and students benefit from such undertakings, but their respective countries do as well. This process results in the advancement of knowledge, deepening of excellence, and economic development. TNE could allow developing countries to foster communities of exceptional talent across a wide set of industries and businesses, leading to sustained economic growth.

Over the past year, we have been investigating and understanding the market, risks, and opportunities for institutions to help them deliver TNE worldwide. Our network has allowed us to link and create successful collaboration between institutions globally.

Here are four practical considerations for universities to successfully establish and deliver TNE:

1. Form lasting collaborative partnerships.

As vital engines of communities and cities, institutions will need to double down on mutually beneficial collaborations with industry and community. Finding a reliable partner institution with a common programme of study is critical to establishing a successful TNE.

2. ‘Blended’ learning and delivery is key.

Blended learning is becoming increasingly more common, as institutions combine education in physical environments with remote learning, typically with support from a local partner. As campuses balance virtual with face-to-face instruction, hybrid learning will require classroom design to support a mix of students — both in-person and online. Equip classrooms with video capture capabilities, scale up capabilities of virtual learning platforms, and integrate these platforms with room scheduling to supplement in-person learning.

3. Understand the local operating environment and ensure quality local internet access.

Universities need to understand the regulatory environment within the countries where they are operating, including constraints such as national internet firewalls. With the shift to remote, transnational learning, it’s even more critical to ensure local internet quality; access to online learning resources and virtual learning environments; and ubiquitous technology, such as cameras, microphones, and displays. Schools will need to determine how they can equip themselves to adopt new virtual tools over the long-term. Physical and digital infrastructure, staff, and space required can then inform scenario planning.

4. Develop a sense of belonging in the delivering institution.

Creating a real sense of belonging is required for every successful university. This can be achieved through understanding and responding to the local context and designing spaces that feel familiar yet innovative. The university needs to respond culturally and socially to the hosting country and understand the social mores and expectations. Placemaking and building community in the virtual world will be critical to future scenarios, fostering a sense of togetherness in virtual, physical, and hybrid interactions. Schools will need to understand which virtual platforms work best for their community, mission, and resources, and then leverage these platforms to enhance the experience of place and community on campus.

At a time where international students are in high demand and the shift to remote learning is likely to continue, now is the time for higher education institutions to expand their reach to new global audiences. Transnational education can help universities diversify their offerings and mitigate potential disruption that might impact the educational landscape during this pandemic and beyond.

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Meghan Webster
As a principal at Gensler, Meghan helps shape strategic vision and strategy, leverage research, and build client engagement. Her work on a broad range of project types with various education clients has developed her experience across all aspects of the design process. Driven by a lifelong passion for shaping the human experience, Meghan brings strategic leadership, innovation, and expertise to design and its core business in client services. She is based in Chicago. Contact her at .