Dozens of English colleges are to open a permanent base in India in a bid to cash in on the country's booming demand for vocational skills.
The Association of Colleges will later this month launch its AoC India initiative, which will instigate meetings for 30 colleges with Indian government officials and employers; it will also help to forge links between colleges and training providers in Delhi.
It is not the first time UK colleges have established a base in India: Wigan and Leigh College has campuses all over the country, and both New College Nottingham and Bournville College have offices there. Representatives of CollegesWales also visited India last month with a view to establishing a strategic partnership.
But the AoC project is the largest collective attempt by UK colleges to contribute to India's massive skills drive. The Indian government has set out a strategy to improve the skills of 500 million people by the nation's 75th anniversary in 2022.
Kapil Sibal, India's minister of human resource development, told a group of British and Indian educators and skills experts earlier this year that just 2 per cent of India's workforce has had formal training for their job.
"There's a large skills demand in India: there's a huge human resource, 1.2 billion people, and a growing economy but they have to train and teach those people to get the proper skills," said John Mountford, international director of the AoC. "They realise that they don't have the educational capacity to do that, so they're looking around the world, not just the UK, for training providers to get involved."
Some other countries have a head start: Canada, the US, Australia and Germany already have a permanent presence in India. But UK colleges believe that India's regard for the British education system will help them to catch up. Under the AoC initiative, colleges will run a joint permanent office in Delhi.
"It's competitive, and our competitors do already have a permanent presence there," Mr Mountford said. "But we have a really strong offer from a quality perspective and a demand-led approach that lends itself to competition."
He said that the size of the task was such that much of the work of colleges may be in training local people so that they can train others and get skills to "cascade" down the population. "The thing about India is the scale," Mr Mountford added. "They talk about hundreds of thousands or millions when they talk about numbers." He said colleges would most likely work in groups to achieve the necessary scale.
Representatives of the Indian education sector also believe that the job is too large and the timescale too short to rely on constructing new institutions, so the majority of the work is expected to involve working with a local partner, either an education institution or employers such as Tata, the conglomerate that owns Jaguar and Tetley Tea, and telecommunications company Bharti Airtel.
Asha Khemka, principal of Vision West Nottinghamshire College and chair of the AoC India group, said that the Indian government was nevertheless creating 200 new community colleges and there was an opportunity for UK colleges to offer advice on governance, leadership, employer engagement and quality assurance. "The UK education system is respected throughout the world and language is not a barrier: most people speak English and speak good English," she said.
Ms Khemka added that her college may market its Basic and Key Skills Builder, online and interactive assessment and learning tools for literacy, numeracy and IT skills.
By 2030, a quarter of the entire global workforce would be based in India, she said, concluding: "It's a huge opportunity."
While Mr Mountford said that international student recruitment remained important for colleges, he acknowledged that the project also offered a new way to work with other countries in an environment where student visas were becomingly increasingly hard to obtain.
Theresa May, the home secretary, said recently that the student visa system had been "abused on an industrial scale".
"Students were coming to Britain not to study but to work," she said. "Many colleges were selling not an education but immigration. And students, supposedly temporary visitors, were staying here permanently in huge numbers."