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FE Commissioner criticises colleges for setting up campuses abroad

The FE Commissioner has criticised colleges for taking on potentially risky business ventures such as opening foreign campuses.

Dr David Collins made his first public comments since taking on the role in November 2013 at the Association of Colleges’ annual conference in Birmingham this week.

He spoke out after his first annual report was published on Monday, in which he criticised poor financial management.

Speaking to journalists, he said colleges should ask themselves if their new business ventures would affect their core business. “If the answer is ‘it could’ then I don’t think they should be doing it,” he said.

“College principals and boards do not own their colleges, they are custodians of public institutions and public funding and they do not have the right to put their core business and support for their local community at risk.”

He said there are “huge opportunities” for colleges to develop internationalism in different ways, but that they should weigh it up against risk.

The warning comes as a growing number of colleges are considering setting up overseas campuses.

Though lagging behind the university sector, a number of FE institutions have already established campuses in places including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, India, China and south America.

Last year former Universities and Science minister David Willetts praised the “entrepreneurial spirit” of British colleges in seeking to expand abroad.

However, the University and College Union has warned there is a danger that colleges could “lose sight” of their domestic students in the rush to establish international brands.

Dr Collins said: “I can see why they are encouraging overseas students to come to their colleges, but I can’t honestly see why colleges should be setting up campuses in other countries.

“It shouldn’t divert you from your core business. If you are putting a significant amount of money into a venture you have got to be absolutely certain you are going to get top return and it’s not going to divert you from what’s going on back at the ranch.

“It’s difficult enough without having something that takes your eyes off the ball.”

Dr Collins said he expected more colleges to be referred to him because of funding concerns than issues of quality.

However, he said it was not difficult for colleges to get it right.

“If you have got reasonable class sizes and your staffing costs are 63-64 per cent of your budget you have got nothing to worry about,” he said. “[Where colleges fail] it’s because they haven’t tackled support staff or class sizes. Get them right and they can cope with existing budgets.”

Related stories:

Expensive college courses at risk of closure, warns FE Commissioner November 2014

FE Commissioner surprised that colleges are missing the 'basics' - October 2014

Governors 'lack expertise' to deal with colleges in financial trouble, warns FE commissioner - June 2014


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