As Scottish colleges expand their horizons with more and more international links, Stevenson College in Edinburgh has teamed up with the Folkeuniversitet in Sandefjord, Norway. The aim is to bring a whole range of benefits to language and tourism students and staff at both colleges.
It marks the beginning of what Roger Breckan, Stevenson's head of languages, interpreting and tourism, calls "our pursuit of the European dimension".
The partnership, inaugurated three years ago and now funded through the Leonardo da Vinci Programme for education and training all over Europe, has already seen tourism students and staff spend two weeks working and learning in Norway with a reciprocal visit by the Norwegians to Edinburgh.
"This initial exchange will count towards the Stevenson students' HND in tourism, as well as having given them a chance to experience college life in a foreign country," says Mr Breckan. "In the near future, we hope to accommodate one or two Norwegian students by finding them work placements in Scotland, as well as finding placements for Scottish students in Norway, as part of their course.
"We can learn a lot from the Folkeuniversitet, with the integration of their training programme with industry providers such as hotel chains and local airport ground staff organisations. These offer students a real training experience leading to employment opportunities," he says.
Central to the partnership will be a link for languages and tourism with the specialist team of lecturing staff at Sandefjord, who deliver to migrant workers. As the Scottish college with the widest offering of English language courses, Stevenson believes its staff can learn new techniques for teaching migrant workers.
"We have a lot of migrant students at Stevenson, especially Poles, who play a vital role in the tourism and hotel trade in Scotland. They are obviously a target group for us, as the need to integrate migrant workers in Scotland is growing.
"For us it is a relatively new phenomenon. A lot of these workers are highly educated and skilled people working below their capacity. Norway has a lot of East European migrant workers and we intend to send staff to the Folkeuniversitet to experience what they do and to welcome their staff here on a reciprocal basis," says Mr Breckan.
The Edinburgh college also hopes to offer students in Norway an intensive e-learning language course in Spanish, via its virtual learning environment.
"Stevenson is strong on languages and we need to capitalise on this," says Mr Breckan. "Spanish is a popular choice with students here, because there is a whole economy built around the British community in Spain, as well as it being a popular holiday destination. But beyond that, looking, for example, at South America, we have to remember that Spanish is a major world language."
Students from Norway could join the HNCD tourism courses at Stevenson, and this would allow them to progress to university in the UK. "Scotland is a popular destination for European students, as it offers them free access to higher education with their fees paid by the Scottish Government. We'd hope to attract Norwegian students here for a year or two before they go on to complete their degrees at university," says Mr Breckan.
Setting up the partnership has been a gradual process. It was difficult to find a partner college in Europe initially because, unlike Sandefjord, most European colleges offering tourism courses cater only for 14- to 18-year-olds.
"The Leonardo funding has also been crucial. Many students here work full- or part-time and it was a financial challenge for our seven students to spend two weeks in Norway. It could not have been done without making up their wage loss," says Mr Breckan.
Stevenson College is now establishing links with Treptow Kolleg in Berlin. In March, it sent 14 students to visit the college and to attend the Berlin International Tourism Fair, one of the largest of its kind in the world, attended by thousands of tourism workers.
The Edinburgh college is now applying to the Leonardo da Vinci Programme to pursue a fuller partnership with Treptow.
Mr Breckan believes the European dimension is crucial, because far too few ScottishBritish students go abroad, and foreign languages are not being taught enough in schools and colleges. European students, on the other hand, are more mobile and see huge advantages in completing their tourism studies here, as they also gain fluency in English.
Natalja Firsova from Estonia is of the new generation of internationally mobile students. She is a second-year HND language and tourism student at Stevenson College and took part in the recent visit to Norway. She speaks Estonian, Russian, German and English, and is studying Spanish.
"Going to Norway was an excellent team-work experience. Scottish tourism is more developed than in either Norway or Estonia. There is not much support for tourists outside the cities in Norway, and Estonia is only beginning to build its tourist industry.
"I came to Edinburgh to do English language and was offered this course with tourism as part of it. I hope to complete my degree at Queen Margaret University next year.
"I was surprised at being given all the materials for the course and feel well supported by the teachers. I also work full-time as a receptionist.
"My dissertation is looking at Russia as an emergent market, and I believe Scotland has a lot to offer Russian people as a cultural and historical tourist destination.
"They will love the Scottish people, the atmosphere and landscape. But the fish-and-chip shops - I don't think they will be sure of at first."