Colleges need to improve language teaching and harness the potential of computer technology to exploit overseas markets, according to a report out this week.
Research by the Further Education Development Agency concludes that colleges should invest more cash in overseas projects if they want to succeed - schemes expected to be self-financing from the outset run into trouble.
The FEDA report, The Shrinking World, also recommends close collaboration between UK colleges, universities and awarding bodies to exploit the potential of international links.
A survey of 180 colleges found 72 per cent had strategic plans for international work, although only four out of 10 had a written policy. And there was evidence of un-met demand for collaboration from overseas colleges - often driven by their interest in the British system of national vocational qualifications.
The researchers found that around a third of colleges had a member of staff dedicated to European or international affairs, and some had sophisticated international departments.
"The colleges with any volume of international activity," the report said, "tend to have recognised the resourcing issue and have a dedicated international or European unit with clerical support, separate accommodation and a budget and targets. At present this is exactly a third of the colleges surveyed. It is a big commitment and it can be some years before the investment is returned."
Many colleges had embarked on curriculum development projects with international partners, but only a third use e-mail or the Internet.
Europe was the major source of links between colleges, with business studies and engineering being the most popular subjects for collaboration.
Outside the EU, the major links were across the Atlantic, with just over half the colleges surveyed having connections with the USA and Canada. Nearly a third of colleges had links in South Africa, and just under a quarter were engaged in work with Pacific Rim countries. Other links were with Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India and Latin America.
Eastern Europe was identified as the major area for expansion, with the USA, Spain and Latin America also singled out for growth.
But detailed case studies of 11 colleges warned that staff and student trips abroad could cause problems. "Most of the colleges interviewed found it difficult to enthuse staff and students in many curriculum areas; an understandable concern was that time spent abroad might dilute the core programme."
ResearchersJrecommended much greater use of high technology to exploit links without the need for trips abroad.
The report said: "It was interesting that only four out of the 11 colleges made reference to the use of new communications technologies as a means of establishing and supporting international links. However, relatively slow progress is being made to exploit video-conferencing, e-mail and other communications tools fully.
"There is therefore high potential for joint student projects, staff development initiatives and development projects to explore the implications of these technologies in terms of how they will support and influence the learning process itself and the many ways in which they can be exploited."
There was also concern that some students with little experience of study overseas could lack confidence to take up opportunities.
The report said: "There may be a need for some curriculum initiatives to enable students to gain the confidence to make the most of these opportunities. This could be done through new communication technologies, creating preliminary partnership activities with students overseas, with integ-rated and relevant foreign language support."