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8th March 2013 at 00:00

Further education knows its star is in the ascendant. It is taking over local schools, revelling in its superior results, opening university training colleges. The "Cinderella sector" is not only having a ball at the ball, but has talked its way into the VIP area and is demanding free Cristal.

Nowhere is this newfound swagger more evident than in the recent push for UK FE to "go global", marching across the planet with great fervour.

The drive for the internationalisation of UK FE has positive intentions at its heart, but it also serves to highlight the fact that colleges are big businesses with customers to satisfy and balance sheets to improve. This is no dirty little secret. After all, the greater the consumer satisfaction (student experience), the more successful the business. Therefore, the quality of the offer (teaching and learning) is paramount because it attracts consumers.

Identifying and exploiting opportunities for growth is essential for developing the bottom line, and it also develops the wider benefits of cultural exchange and societal mobility. Offering high-quality vocational education to people who may otherwise not have access to it demonstrates a sense of social responsibility that runs deep in the veins of FE. Such joint ventures with industry expand not just the "brand reach" of the individual college but also of UK FE as a sector.

As long as we don't question the assumption that the UK education system, and specifically our sector, is a world-class operation, then we are on to a global winner. But we should consider the fact that not every college is serving its community adequately and some are not able to divert funds and focus elsewhere. Why would colleges that are not meeting local needs think it is moral or helpful to distract themselves by spreading the mediocrity worldwide?

The recent Association of Colleges India project seems to me a sensible initiative to enable UK colleges to explore opportunities and literally expand their horizons. Each of the 31 colleges involved has invested #163;20,000 for a two-year membership. At first glance #163;20,000 might seem like a lot of money, but this is back-of-the-sofa change compared with the huge sums some colleges throw at less reputable schemes.

In return, the member colleges gain access to the services of a team of AoC India specialists, dedicated to developing industrial and educational links. On the list of colleges that have already signed up are well-known, successful organisations for which the notion of sharing best practice is a genuine and fitting term. They are in an excellent position to diversify and explore opportunities.

The other heartening aspect of the AoC India project is the willingness for colleges to ditch competitive antics and adopt proactive cross-sector unity. This bodes well for the imminent governmental changes to the sector and the formation of the FE Guild (or whatever name is settled on) that relies on alliances from colleges and all areas of FE.

The internationalisation of FE is big business and has the potential to generate millions for colleges. But exporting education without first assuring that the product is fit for purpose may damage the reputation of all and leave the UK customers of this brave new empire of FE - also known as students - demanding a refund.

Sarah Simons works in a large FE college in Mansfield.

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