The Asian powerhouses of China and India have hitherto been the primary focus of Western colleges seeking to generate revenue by exporting their own brands of vocational education.
But as the world shifts its gaze to Brazil ahead of the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, British colleges are increasingly turning their attention to South America.
"There's a sales job to be done; a marketing job about the UK brand," said John Mountford, international director of the Association of Colleges (AoC). "It's competitive but we have a really good offer. We're flexible, nimble and have recognisable, transferable qualifications."
At the launch of its international education export strategy last week, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills played up the global popularity of the UK's exam boards, including City amp; Guilds, Pearson and Cambridge Assessment.
In particular, the AoC believes these could do well in Brazil and Colombia, not least because Colombia lacks a nationally funded and structured further education system with transferable qualifications. At present, skills training in the country is largely organised on a sector- by-sector basis, funded by levies from the main players in each industry and resulting in less formalised qualifications that have little value in other sectors.
After an official visit by UK universities and science minister David Willetts and AoC chief executive Martin Doel earlier this year, Mr Mountford believes that Colombia could provide rich pickings for the association's member colleges. "Some interesting opportunities have arisen," he said. "It's got a growing population and a developing economy. But they need skills to develop that process."
The AoC has also been raising its profile in Brazil, where the higher education sector has so far been the UK's main area of focus. The Science Without Borders scholarship programme, for example - paid for by the Brazilian government - helps to fund students from that country to spend a year at a British university studying modules related to science, technology, engineering, mathematics and the creative industries. About 10,000 Brazilian undergraduates and postgraduate students are expected to come to the UK by 2016.
The AoC is now pushing for this scheme to be expanded to the further education sector, and has held high-level talks about bringing Brazilian students to UK colleges to study for vocational qualifications. The association is hoping for the first batch of 500 students to arrive in the UK in September 2014.
"The UK is recognised all over the world for the quality and tradition of its colleges," said Wilson Conciani, rector of the Federal Institute of Brasilia, a technical training institute in the Brazilian capital. "The AoC is the bridge between the Brazilian federal institutes and the UK colleges. We hope to learn how to be apply their scientific and cultural knowledge to improving the quality and productivity of Brazilian companies."
Mr Willetts last week praised the entrepreneurial spirit of British colleges in seeking to expand abroad. But, as reported in last week's TES, the University and College Union has said there is a danger that colleges could "lose sight" of their domestic students in the rush to establish international brands.
But with a number of colleges developing links in countries such as Libya and Saudi Arabia, Mr Mountford is confident that there is further potential for the UK vocational brand to be exported into uncharted territories. "There has been a growing realisation that, as well as student recruitment overseas, to maximise international opportunities we need to look where we can export skills to the overseas market," he said.
"It's not just about taking (domestic provision) off the shelf, we need to adapt what we do for them. Lots of countries are experiencing economic growth, unlike Europe. They have a growing population, and to sustain growth they need good training and good skills. There are real opportunities for us."
India skills shortage
With 500 million skilled technicians needed by 2022, India has become the focal point of the global skills arms race.
In January, the Association of Colleges launched its AoC India initiative, with the aim of promoting British colleges' expertise as a way for India to tackle its huge shortage of skilled workers.
Providers from the US, Canada, Australia, Switzerland and Germany are already well-established in the subcontinent, and are also looking to expand their reach to other parts of the developing world.
Photo credit: Reuters