Rob May is CEO at ABE and a Board Member at the Federation of Awarding Bodies.
With the vocational education market looking volatile, many colleges and assessment organisations in search of double-digit growth are starting to look further afield to reap rewards.
The possibilities offered by international markets offer a massive opportunity to scale. Not to mention the fact that the right educational offer in the right market can have a tremendous impact. Vocational education in the developing world is a game-changer, transforming lives, whole communities, and even whole countries.
But with a global economic slowdown, and in an increasingly crowded international market for education, UK colleges and awarding bodies are running out of time, and opportunities. It’s true that that the emerging-market giants like Brazil and India are becoming more expensive and complicated to work in, but over the last 40 years, ABE has built-up a unique global experience by paying more attention to low-income, high-risk countries as new markets for vocational education. Many are home to the world’s largest untapped sources of minerals and metals, but also to untapped sources of talent.
At first glance, these ‘frontier markets’ in places such as Africa, the Caribbean and South-east Asia may not seem like obvious candidates for expansion, often they have been characterized by politically manipulated markets, corruption, and low GDP. Yet these regions contain many of those countries forecast to enjoy the most economic growth over the next five years; among them Myanmar, Mozambique, Vietnam, and Rwanda.
I’ve just returned from a trip to Guyana, a firmly established market for ABE, where there has recently been the largest offshore discovery of oil in history! Global investment in developing this resource could boost Guyana’s income and growth for many years to come and increase public spending on education and public services as well as attracting an influx of supportive industries requiring a diverse skills base, just as it did in neighbouring Trinidad.
As a relative newcomer to ABE I was astonished to find that within Guyana’s vocational education system, ABE is pretty much the only show in town, it’s as well-known over there as City & Guilds are over here! (In fact, I can’t imagine an awarding body being offered a slot on breakfast TV in the UK!). I was left in no doubt about how important education and qualifications are for social mobility across the whole CARICOM region. Despite competition from Australia, Canada and the US, British education is still considered to be the gold standard.
With the balance of global economic power starting to shift, the region is poised to be transformed as local governments pull out of institutional weaknesses, legal system inefficiencies, and racial fractures in society, and seek to diversify their economic and educational landscape, decreasing the dependency on oil & gas and agriculture revenues. Already, new industries such as ICT, manufacturing, outsourcing and healthcare are springing up, but at the same time exposing a local skills gap that desperately needs filling.
Economic hardship is still an issue, but UK providers and awarding bodies can play a huge role in its reduction. I visited a number of schools, colleges and universities and heard first-hand how many young people dream of starting-up their own venture, or travel all day long through the sweltering Guyanese interior just to attend night school in the capital, Georgetown. And encouragingly, a large proportion of these learners are young women, which promises better gender parity in the future. The facilities across the region vary, from fairly basic rural community schools with chalk-and-talk classrooms to well-equipped, fully-digitised colleges in Port of Spain which wouldn’t be out of place in Surrey.
For learning technology providers also, the frontier markets look very attractive. Over 2016 – 2020 the fastest growing markets for e-Learning include Sri Lanka (22%), Laos (21%), and Ethiopia (19%). The truth is that in most of these countries more people have smartphones than bank accounts. By 2020 there will be more than 700 smartphone connections in Africa, which is more than North America. If big tech firms are opening-up these continents, education providers can surely follow.
But a note of caution… Fortunately, ABE has built up relationships with local regulators, governments and providers over many decades, and this longevity plus an ‘on-the-ground’ network of representatives is the key to success. The complexity and constant change that has characterised vocational education over the past few years has had a ripple effect around the world. In fact, constant upheaval at home may even be damaging the brand of UK education abroad.
For governments in those frontier economies which are becoming more sophisticated, and which are starting to push a nationalist agenda that promotes home-grown educational pathways, having to grapple with the nuances, intricacies and political whims driving UK system change is becoming less and less appealing. Area managers with direct links to regional regulators are required to provide reassurances that long-distance reforms won’t break local systems. Establishing and maintaining trust is vital, but takes time. If the vocational training landscape looks chaotic from here, just imagine how mystifying it looks when viewed from South America!
Opening-up frontier economies can be tricky, but once-in the value of offering a high-quality learning experience to some of the hardest-to-reach people on the planet, in terms of both revenue and social impact can be extremely rewarding.
Rob May, CEO at ABE and Board Member at the Federation of Awarding Bodies

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