The 157 group, the organisation that represents the country's leading colleges, is piloting a scheme to deliver UK college-branded diplomas in China.
The move would mean Chinese students studying for higher diplomas validated and quality assured by the 157 colleges involved, rather than awarding bodies such as Edexcel and City amp; Guilds.
Initially, the diplomas will bear the name of the colleges, but could eventually be styled 157 Group Higher Diplomas.
City of Sunderland College is the first 157 institution to form a partnership as part of the initiative, linking with the Inner Mongolia Business and Commercial Vocational College in Hohhot, which is the regional capital.
About 60 students are starting a City of Sunderland College Higher Diploma in business and global trade this autumn. City of Sunderland does not have the power to award vocational qualifications in the UK but college-branded qualifications are recognised overseas.
Angela O'Donoghue, City of Sunderland principal, said: "They do not understand awarding bodies in China. If you tried to sell them a BTec national diploma, they would say No because they cannot afford it. They don't see why they should give money to an awarding body that isn't the college. So we have offered a City of Sunderland College Higher Diploma. They understand that."
Sunderland has developed a quality-assurance process to ensure the standard of the diploma delivered in China. College staff visited China to validate a centre that will oversee delivery of the diploma.
"The way they teach in China is very different," Ms O'Donoghue said. "Everything is based on exams and regurgitating what's been learnt. They are not particularly good at preparing young people for the workplace, whereas in the UK we teach people how to learn rather than simply imparting knowledge.
"Manufacturing is vast in China and yet they are struggling to find the technical people to keep the production lines running."
City of Sunderland has agreements with a number of UK universities to ensure that its diploma is recognised should those successfully completing the course wish to pursue higher education studies here.
City of Bristol College and Matthew Boulton College have signed up for the second pilot phase. They are seeking partner colleges with a view to starting next autumn.
The 157 Group initiative falls under the Sino-UK Partners in Education agreement.
Carole Sweeney, head of education at the Government's Joint International Unit, which supports and promotes UK education abroad, said: "The UK has a lot of experience in developing curriculum linked to employer needs, which we are keen to share with China."
All the FE in China
- Vocational colleges or schools cater mainly for 15- to 18-year-olds and some part-time adults, typically studying for three years.
- There are 43 key sector centres of excellence, with 10 in Beijing.
- Colleges usually offer 10 major subjects, but will be known for two to three particular specialisms.
- The government has invested heavily in colleges; western and central regions are now a priority.
- There is strict control of which subjects colleges offer, designed in response to market need.
- Most colleges claim a 95 per cent student employment rate.