Colleges are planning to set up campuses abroad and to strike more deals with overseas institutions in response to tighter immigration rules that could block the recruitment of foreign students.
A survey by Eversheds, which offers legal advice to colleges, found that more than a third were considering setting up campuses overseas, while more than 90 per cent believed increased collaborations with foreign colleges were likely.
So far, most international work by colleges has meant recruiting students to the UK. While home secretary Theresa May indicated that the proposed restrictions on below degree-level courses may be eased for trusted institutions such as publicly funded colleges, the coalition Government's immigration cap makes sharply reduced numbers likely.
Some institutions have pioneered campuses abroad, such as Wigan amp; Leigh College, which runs 31 campuses in India. But John Mountford, international director of the Association of Colleges, said colleges lagged behind universities.
"We are a little bit behind the HE sector when it comes to actual campuses abroad," he said. "Nottingham University has a campus in Ningbo in northern China, Middlesex University has one in the UAE, there are some well-established sites. FE is definitely moving towards that."
Mr Mountford said there were several obstacles to establishing campuses abroad, such as dealing with the complexities of foreign regulation and recruiting appropriate staff, since many countries with a demand for UK colleges had little vocational training experience themselves and international recruitment was not as widespread as in HE.
But Mr Mountford said the cost was perhaps the most significant. "It's expensive: the building costs, the legal costs. You have to be in it for the long-term. Universities have bigger budgets and can spread the risk more evenly. It is a risk for colleges, there is no doubt about it."
But he added that the partnerships with foreign institutions, which many colleges were pursuing, were the first step to establishing their own campuses.
Mr Mountford said new visa rules were likely to target private colleges rather than publicly funded institutions - "colleges above the chip shop" - but added that aiming to reduce immigration to "tens of thousands a year" would inevitably affect student recruitment, with 30,000 non-EU students a year in colleges alone.
According to the survey, colleges saw international work as essential for revenue generation and they expected to expand it to compensate for the loss of public funding. The most commonly identified opportunities were in China, the Middle East, South-East Asia and India.
Mr Mountford said that, following the HE model, colleges would be likely to charge slightly lower fees for campuses abroad, but would be able to attract a greater number of students, including those who could not afford the high living costs of the UK.
"The big shift will be from a simple recruitment model to a longer-term partnership, whether that's through sponsored courses abroad or having their own campus," he said.
Eversheds partner Glynne Stanfield said: "Most colleges are starting from a low base but are putting in place the structures required to undertake international operations. In order to do so successfully, they will need both practical help and government support if they are to develop sustainable international partnerships in an increasingly competitive market place."
Only one in eight colleges has no plans to carry out international work, the survey found.