From education to employment

Opportunities and Challenges: Exporting UK College expertise overseas

John Mountford, International skills sector expert

As Kofi Annan memorably reflected; ‘arguing against globalisation is like arguing against the laws of gravity’. Globalisation is the driving force of our times and the FE sector, as much as any other, has to find effective strategies to grasp the opportunities and meet the challenges it presents.

International work makes an immensely important contribution to our sector through offering a global dimension to campus life or by the commercial opportunities it represents to both providers and local economies. Colleges’ engagement with international partners also promotes our world class sector to global stakeholders, which in turn makes the UK a more attractive country to partner and work with. It is with good reason that HMG views our education sector as a national asset to be promoted and exported. Global partnerships also help to expose colleges to cutting edge good practice and give us a seat around the table for international exchanges and policy dialogues. Judged by commercial or educational standards, we’d be a far poorer sector without an international dimension.

Some UK stakeholders will argue that international is a distraction from colleges’ ‘core’ mission built around local students, communities and impact. However, in global times, can we be confident in defining what exactly our local communities are and to what extent are they in fact global? Would we be doing our domestic students a disservice if we didn’t prepare them with the global skills that they will need as they move forward in their lives and careers. In fact, I’d ask any colleague who has concerns over the value of working internationally to spend an afternoon, as I recently had the opportunity to do; listening to the inspiring stories of FE students talking about the positive impact their Erasmus + experiences has had on their studies and lives. Equally, international programmes can benefit all aspects of college life by allowing colleges to run courses they wouldn’t have been able to fund, hire staff they wouldn’t have been able to pay and add resources they wouldn’t have been able to buy. Perhaps the question shouldn’t be whether or not we go global but is in fact, what international model is the best fit our institutions and ambitions.

As colleges weigh up what international means for them, there are several models they can consider as proven routes into overseas markets. Despite the challenges presented to the sector by student visa legislation, international student recruitment remains at the heart of the college sector’s international offer. It’s an approach that allows the quickest route to developing international business and there are well established student recruitment business models that UK providers can use to develop their offer. The college offer is an extremely attractive one for international students. The excellence in student support, our inclusive and welcoming campuses, the opportunity to progress on to further study or the world of work are all very convincing reasons for students to want and study with us. Courses such as EFL, A levels, International Foundation Years, International Study Years and increasingly HE programmes all remain attractive and valued options for international students. Colleges also deliver international programmes in a wide range of sectors, with typical areas including; Engineering, Healthcare, Creative, IT, Business, Tourism and Hospitality. A strong international student body can also help with the development of internationalisation activities that allow colleges to realise their ambitions around global skills for all.

Alongside student recruitment activity, colleges have increasingly explored new and exciting models for delivering international programmes. This has included capacity building international partners’ provision and academic teams to allow them to deliver parts of UK programmes overseas.  Colleges accredit international partners’ programmes, which supports the smooth transfer of students onto UK programmes. Some colleges have also set up overseas training centres and in a few cases overseas campuses. Colleges offer consultancy services and develop bespoke programmes for international providers in areas such as leadership, curriculum development and quality assurance. We also see colleges delivering a range of teacher training, train the trainer and train the assessor programmes in the UK and overseas. They also play a full and important role in sharing our world class provision with international partners through a range of EU and international projects. Our sector’s flexible and adaptable approach to training allows colleges to work effectively with a wide range of partners, sectors and programmes.  This includes a growing utilisation of technology, especially around the development of distance learning programmes. The FE sector’s breadth and depth of offer, coupled with a flexible, pragmatic and quality driven approach makes it well suited to the development of delivery models that support both its own ambitions and the objectives of its partners. Alongside commercial priorities, colleges also make valuable contributions to EU projects, policy dialogue and leadership exchange programmes.  

This breadth of offer is also reflected in the range of different countries in which colleges are working. This includes students recruited from China, HK, Japan, Korea and increasingly South America (Colombia and Brazil). Some colleges are also looking at wider student recruitment markets such as Russia, Central Asia and MENA. Colleges are also starting to grow their presence in the exciting ASEAN market where there is a developing interest in UK qualifications and programmes. A number of colleges have established in country delivery centres and partnerships in China and MENA. The sector also provides consultancy and capacity building work in a range of different regions, including adding value to programmes supporting the capacity building of skills programmes in developing nations. In fact, UK Further Education is now truly a global brand with providers operating in countries all over the world, which is something for our sector to be very proud of.  

International is challenging, and be wary of promises of ‘quick wins’ and ‘low hanging fruit’! Our well-deserved reputation for being a welcoming study destination has been tarnished by the trials of student visas, which will take time to heal. It will also take time, determination and a long term strategic commitment to reap the benefits of in country delivery projects and progammes. Breaking into new markets is always challenging as are the costs that go along with it. However, in these global times, I’d argue that there is real value for all FE providers to think about how they could position their organisations, select the delivery models that work best for them and start towards their international journey.

John Mountford is an international skills sector expert with extensive experience of leading global and EU projects and programmes.

About John Mountford: An independent consultant specialising in the development of sustainable international programmes and initiatives. He works extensively with UK TVET providers in developing the sector’s international capacity. This includes advising on; strategic development, approaches to market, product development and delivery models. Contact him via email.

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