`Introverted' FE urged to come out of its shell

Rewards await colleges that seek opportunities abroad, expert says

The UK's further education sector must stop being "introverted" and start looking overseas to attract new students and make more money, the country's international education champion has said.

Sir Eric Thomas, who heads up the government's International Education Council, told TES that there were "substantial opportunities" for FE colleges to do business abroad. But unions responded to his call with concerns that colleges could end up "forgetting their mission" to serve their local communities. They also pointed to "serious problems" surrounding the accountability of public funding in universities' overseas projects, which they fear could be replicated in FE.

The Association of Colleges (AoC) added that UK institutions were already expanding their reach. Last year the government launched a strategy to increase the UK's education export industry, which is currently worth pound;17.5 billion to the economy.

Although universities make up the bulk of that sum, a growing number of FE colleges are expanding internationally. The UK government, supported by the AoC, has signed a deal with India to partner 25 of its community colleges with UK institutions. And last month it was announced that contracts worth pound;850 million had been awarded to UK providers to operate 12 "colleges of excellence" in Saudi Arabia.

But Sir Eric, who is also the vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, said more FE colleges needed to realise that there was an overseas market for the types of courses they offer.

"Many countries need the kind of skills development we see in FE in this country," he said. "Colleges need to be much more aware of the possibilities and move from that rather introverted look at local skills needs to looking internationally. If they feel it is part of their mission and they can resource it, there are quite substantial opportunities."

In the short-term, he said, the key areas of interest for exports were South East Asia and the Middle East, but in the long-term colleges could look to South America for business.

John Mountford, international director of the AoC, said he did not agree with Sir Eric's comment that the sector was "introverted", as many colleges were already starting to look for international business.

"A lot of the rhetoric around internationalisation can be university-focused and we completely agree that a lot of the high-value opportunities are in the vocational and technical education and training space," he said. "If we accept that the raison d'tre of colleges is to help train people for the workplace, to give people the skills to be effective employees, then we have to accept that the world is becoming more globalised.

"There are good educational and commercial reasons why colleges should look internationally and why that would benefit home students as well," he added.

However, Mr Mountford said that the government should back the FE sector with more resources, to help make its offer more attractive.

Not everyone is on board with the push to export UK education, however, and the University and College Union in particular has concerns. A spokesman told TES that there had already been "serious problems" with exporting higher education abroad, surrounding the transparency and accountability of public funding.

"These colleges are supposed to be serving their communities but they are being encouraged to think of themselves as national providers with an international reach," the spokesman said. "We have real concerns that these colleges are forgetting their mission. At the time when their local communities need them the most, to get people skilled up and back into employment, colleges are launching these speculative ventures abroad."

But Sir Eric dismissed the concerns. "I don't see a problem with having a local and an international responsibility," he said. "It's about focused business planning. You can spend a lot of money on internationalising and not necessarily see a great return. I don't see why some colleges, appropriately placed, can't do the same in FE [as in HE]."

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