I was once mistaken for Her Majesty’s Ambassador to a Central American country. I’d wanted to be a diplomat when I was younger, a desire relived by watching the recent BBC series Inside the Foreign Office. Embassy receptions, diplomatic cars, perilous and frankly bizarre situations encountered overseas; the series reminded me that by working in international education, I’ve still seen diplomatic life - albeit in an unofficial capacity, and without having to move post every four years.
The case of mistaken ambassadorial identity was fleeting but my experiences over 17 years in this job will be long-lasting. However, to identify international education jobs as glamorous would be a mistake. Anyone who’s ever done an overseas work trip will tell you that whilst it’s personally enriching and a privilege, it’s also exhausting. Indeed, for any UK college working internationally, the success of its international strategy depends not only on someone going abroad to develop the business links but on the staff back at base who provide all the support and customer service. Outside their colleges, I’m not sure international office staff get a lot of public thanks for what they do, so I’d like to put on record how much their work is appreciated.
My job has enabled me to walk on the Great Wall of China and to eat under the stars on a Mauritian beach. It has also involved dealing with very upsetting student issues and managing the complexities of the UK visa system. International staff in colleges support their students day in, day out, and sometimes there are only one or two people managing the entire student journey right through from enquiry to graduation. That’s why it’s important that AoC helps colleges to make connections and to share best practice. It strengthens our whole sector.
A deputy principal who came to a recent AoC international event told me that talking to the other colleges there really made her appreciate some of the challenges her international staff face. It’s a tough environment for FE on many levels and international work has been no exception, the gradual tightening of UK visa rules making it harder to recruit international students. But with their usual gumption, colleges persevere - AoC’s 2018 survey of college international work showed that international student recruitment remains the number one international activity for colleges.
Trust, hope and expectation
The families of international students place a huge amount of trust, hope and expectation in those who will teach and support them. They look to colleges to help their kids succeed and stay safe. Some young international students travel thousands of miles from home, alone, to enrol with us. It might be their first time abroad and is usually their first time living away from home. This is a massive undertaking for anyone, never mind in a country where people probably don’t speak your language. Yet college staff are there, waiting to welcome the new arrivals.
Furthermore, some countries and cultures don’t manage personal and learning needs in the way the UK does. Mental health issues, dyslexia or other support needs usually manifest themselves only once an international student has arrived. Curriculum and support staff work hard to accommodate international students’ requirements alongside those of the local students in their class. I’ve never felt however that international students are somehow more challenging than Home students.
They’re just different, largely because of language and culture - at the end of the day, every student in a class is an individual. Colleges usually infill international students into classes with local students, which gives the sector one of our greatest (and most unsung) selling points for the international marketplace – an authentic learning experience for the international student.
I’ve worked with college staff who’ve waved off an international delegation at 3am on a Saturday; disembarked a long-haul flight straight to a high-level meeting with a minister; drunk their own body weight in cups of tea doing the rounds of homestay hosts (who are invaluable to the UK’s international education sector, welcoming thousands of students into their homes every year). This year we will announce the first college winner of the AoC International Beacon Award, supported by the British Council, at the Tes Fe Awards 2019 on 22 March. One of the college sector’s greatest assets is the enthusiastic commitment of our staff to their students. One of our best-kept secrets is the dedication of our international staff.
Emma Meredith is international director at the Association of Colleges