When David Cameron travelled to China on a trade mission last week, much was made of his attempts to build closer industrial ties between the two countries.
But alongside the dozens of business leaders accompanying the prime minister were educators, including a representative flying the flag for British further education: Di Roberts, principal of Brockenhurst College in Hampshire.
Mrs Roberts, who was invited in her capacity as deputy chair of the Association of Colleges (AoC), told TES that she had to fight for FE from the very beginning.
“When we had the briefing at number 10, the PM talked a lot about universities,” she said. “I asked him if when the delegation talked about universities, they could also talk about colleges, because they have a real role to play.
“Sometimes there’s a shorthand used that universities are all-encompassing, but many colleges, like ours, are working in China.
“I was pleased that in his first speech the Prime Minister made a point to mention both universities and colleges, and then throughout the trip FE and HE were given equal billing.”
Mrs Roberts spoke to Mr Cameron on the flight to China and explained to him the range of international work UK colleges undertake and how that could fit with the government’s strategy to develop international education.
As reported in TES, a growing number of UK colleges are exploiting commercial opportunities in China.
Like many other FE colleges, Brockenhurst has a partner school in China, with regular student and staff exchanges taking place between the two.
During the trip, Mrs Roberts signed a new agreement with the school, Jia Xiang school in Chengdu, to jointly develop a new international school.
She said that there was a great respect for the UK education system in China, and added that the country was keen to learn from the FE sector in particular.
“What China is trying to do now is to move to a student-centered approach. At the moment it’s all about getting knowledge into the heads of students, but what they want to learn from us is things like thinking skills and how to develop independent learners," she said.
“China is also realising vocational education is vital. The government is investing in vocational education facilities but they want to learn from us in terms of things like teacher training, apprenticeships and how to work with small and medium businesses.
“A college like ours does gives equal status to academic and vocational; many of our students will go to Oxbridge or Russell Group universities, while we also educate engineers and cooks.”