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The days when international students flooded into British to study at its world-renowned universities may not be over, but the dynamics are rapidly changing.

According to statistics published last week, the number of people studying outside Britain for a complete British higher education qualification rose by 23 percent last year and now equates to one-sixth of all students taking British degrees.

Such courses are typically cheaper than those delivered in Britain and allow students to stay closer to home while avoiding the country's visa regime. According to the figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), 503,795 students at British institutions "studied wholly overseas" in 2010-11, up sharply from 408,685 in 2009-10 and 388,135 in 2008-09.

The separate figure for total enrollments in Britain was 2.5 million in 2010-11, meaning that those studying wholly overseas equated to about one in six of all students.

Students in this category -- also known as "transnational education" (TNE) -- include those registered at overseas branch campuses run by British universities, people studying for British university awards at overseas institutions, and those engaged in distance learning.

Possible drivers for the growth in 2010-11 include the new visa system for non-European Union students seeking to enter Britain, plus increasing demand for higher education among Asia's expanding middle classes. HESA advises universities not to include in the "wholly overseas" category those students studying on overseas courses validated by a UK institution -- the process that led to the scandals involving the University of Wales.

However, the figures still prompted calls for British universities to maintain quality for students studying wholly overseas. Joanna Newman, director of the UK Higher Education International Unit, said the increase "demonstrates the benefits to UK institutions in a wide range of activities."

She added: "There are risks to engaging internationally, but universities are developing their international strategies to ensure relevant standards are maintained."

TNE "enables international students to gain a UK education, but it is also an opportunity to enhance outward student mobility by providing UK and EU students with international experience in another country as an integral part of their course," she said. HESA could not provide figures on how many UK-domiciled students were in the wholly overseas category.

While HESA has not yet supplied a breakdown of UK TNE growth by country in 2010-11, Newman said that the 2009-10 figures show that the biggest growth areas that year were Malaysia, Hong Kong and Nigeria.

Branch campuses accounted for a small proportion of students studying wholly overseas: 12,315 in 2010-11, up from 11,410 in 2009-10. The bulk of the TNE students were in HESA's "registered at overseas partner organization -- studying overseas for an award of the reporting [UK] institution" group. It had 291,595 students, up from 207,805 the previous year -- a 40 percent rise.

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