Opinion | Transnational education: The next Estonian export?

"International Students - IN or OUT" conversation, organized by the Estonian Students Union (Eesti Üliõpilaskondade Liit) and Estonishing Evenings. Source: Estonian Students Union

Worldwide, the coronavirus pandemic has closed borders and reduced the number of students studying abroad. At the same time, however, it has actually opened new opportunities for Estonia to further promote itself as a world leader in higher education. Now's the time for Estonia to apply its e-state expertise to transnational education, writes Jay Allen Zameska, a student representative at the University of Tartu.

Many of the most famous Estonian success stories – Wise, Skype, e-Residency, and so on – are fundamentally transnational. These services all aim specifically to facilitate working and studying across borders, enabling individuals and organizations to operate simultaneously in multiple countries.

It's no surprise that such transnational success stories come from Estonia. Estonia is in many ways already largely a transnational country: Not only can it boast of successful transnational companies and services, but it also has an active Estonian community abroad, and effectively promotes international mobility for its researchers and students. However, it can still go further.

The traditional route for internationalizing higher education involves sending students and researchers abroad and inviting students to come study in Estonia. So far, Estonia has been doing very well with this traditional model. However, a fully transnational education opens up more possibilities, including full distance-learning programs, Estonian branch campuses abroad, and hybrid curricula which allow students to complete some of their studies in their home country and some of their studies here in Estonia.

Such transnational approaches present an opportunity for Estonian higher education to further develop new knowledge, skills, and connections, as well as to further raise its profile in an increasingly transnational world. As an e-state with significant expertise in telecommuting and remote work, Estonia is well-placed to be a leader in transnational education. But why is now the right time for Estonia to take the next step and expand into transnational education?

As a result of the pandemic, the ways students are engaging with international education are changing. The coronavirus has reduced the number of students who can travel internationally for their education, both as a result of immediate travel restrictions and the pandemic's economic effects – a trend that has already been reflected in foreign student enrolment in Estonia. At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating educational trends already in place, particularly by expanding transnational education and increasing the acceptance and recognition of distance and hybrid degree programs. Fortunately, these are all areas where Estonia already excels, and Estonia stands to benefit significantly from adopting a more transnational approach.

Given the reduction in international student mobility, transnational approaches to education offer a way to continue Estonia's efforts to internationalize its higher education system. In general, such approaches increase student mobility. Students can gain access to high quality education, even when studying in Estonia (or other European nations) may be politically and financially out of reach. Not only do transnational programs allow students to avoid visa difficulties, but they are typically more cost-effective for many students, while still bringing income to Estonian universities. Students who may not have the financial resources to study abroad in Estonia, or who may need to remain in their home countries for other reasons (e.g. to meet family commitments) often still want to receive an education from an Estonian institution. Transnational education offers one way for them to do so.

These programs also offer significant benefits for Estonia: transnational programs help to boost Estonia's profile and prestige abroad through establishing branch campuses, partner universities, and successful distance study programs, which all help to attract more students to Estonian education. Data from the UK, for example, suggests there is a "halo effect" that accompanies transnational endeavors, which would likely attract even more students to seek out further education in Estonia.

Beyond increasing Estonia's reputation and helping to build further research connections abroad, adopting these kinds of transnational approaches also promises to bring more income to Estonian universities through student tuition fees. Increasing distance and hybrid learning offers a way to increase the number of students paying tuition fees without having to impose fees on programs that are in Estonian.

Given Estonia's noted success in implementing distance learning during the pandemic, it's likely that students would be willing to pay for Estonian distance learning programs in particular. This all suggests that Estonia should take a look at the prospects of expanding beyond internationalization of Estonian higher education and begin the transnationalization of Estonian higher education. 

Although such transnational approaches promise significant benefits, they are not without their risks and challenges. In particular, as many discovered during the pandemic, students engaged in distance studies often face a variety of challenges: They frequently miss out on important social interaction, may not receive adequate engagement and guidance from lecturers through distance learning, and may lack the higher levels of self-motivation distance studies often require.

In addition to the challenges students face in distance and hybrid approaches,  Estonia must take care to ensure the quality of these programs: they cannot be implemented merely as cheap 'cash grabs'. Offering low-quality and poorly conducted distance and hybrid curricula is more likely to hurt Estonia's reputation and enrollment rates than to help them.

Although the quality of distance studies in Estonia has varied, overall Estonian educational institutions have performed very well – attracting international attention for the ease and effectiveness of Estonian e-solutions for distance learning. This is a promising sign that Estonian distance learning programs would be able to overcome the challenges of hybrid and fully online studies while still maintaining the quality and expertise that currently attracts students to study in Estonia.

Estonia has already offered much of its digital expertise without charge as a way to help others more successfully weather the pandemic. However, Estonia can go further. The changes in education from the pandemic represent a great opportunity for Estonia to capitalize on its reputation for flexibility and innovation, by expanding its provisioning of transnational education, particularly through international online distance learning, increasing overseas partnerships, and considering the establishment of international branch campuses to support foreign students' studies in their home countries.

This also likely requires rethinking recruitment strategies, to appeal to students who may not be willing or able to move to Estonia to complete their education, but are still interested in receiving a high quality education through Estonian universities. Now is the time to look towards the future of Estonian higher education, which is not just about continuing to bring international students to Estonia, but is about exporting high-quality Estonian programs abroad.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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