With the recent publicity about poor Scottish standards in school maths and science, it was heartening for an export-oriented group of educationis ts to leave these shores knowing that in the view of a New York Times report Scottish education is still up there with the best. The group, mainly from further and higher education but with a schools component, was destined for Argentina under the auspices of SETEG, the Scottish Education and Training Export Group, and was led by Sir Graeme Davies, principal of Glasgow University.
The delegates represented their own institutions and in some cases the Scottish Polytechnic Group. Others were from Scottish Trade International and the Link Education and Research Trust. There was also a representative from the Scottish Further Education Unit and the Association of Scottish Colleges.
Only independent schools featured on this trip but there are plans for a further visit in which state schools can give a fuller picture of how the school system operates in Scotland. Fiona Wilson, education export manager with SETEG, said: "We wanted to go in with a national approach and to assist individual institutions by doing that. It was all about selling Scottish education in consultancy projects, in the institutions delivering courses overseas themselves or through franchising, and attracting students to come to Scotland for short courses or to take part in MBA programmes on offer here. Of our seven priority markets some, including Argentina, are in line with the British Council's and the Department of Trade and Industry's priority markets. I had gone out there in April of this year to do some research and to look at opportunities specifically for Scottish institutions. "
Liz Speake, who was there for both the ASC and the SFEU, said that it had been "an excellent opportunity to raise the profile of Scottish further education overseas, particularly since we have a unique system of pathways within the school sector, further and higher education which is of particular interest to overseas countries engaged in their reforms or in the process of reform. There was particular surprise in Argentina at the significant figure of 30 per cent of higher education students in Scotland taking their course within further education colleges."
From an FE point of view, the visit proved to be more successful than most delegates had anticipated, with various opportunities to promote their own colleges while at the same time acting on behalf of the Scottish Polytechnic Group.
Ann Hardy, European co-ordinator at Falkirk College, said: "It was very much an investigative trip to see if there were any opportunities in the Argentinian market. We did not necessarily go out to market our courses. We were more interested in franchising, delivering short programmes over there or perhaps forming partnerships in some areas."
She said: "Many of the students were interested in coming to Scotland for short three-month programmes with English language skills built in. I came back to find a fax sitting on my desk from one of the engineering institutions I had visited, and they are coming to us at the end of the month. I also made five or six strong contacts."
Brian McQueen from Dundee College, was particularly interested in attracting students, especially through vocational programmes with language skills between January and March when Argentinian students are on summer holiday.
Jim Halluch, marketing manager at Edinburgh's Telford College, outlined how the hectic schedule began. "We arrived in Buenos Aires on Sunday and on Monday morning we had a briefing at the British Embassy followed in the afternoon by a series of meetings with representatives of the Ministry of Education with the object of learning from them how things work. An evening reception at the embassy included guests representing educational and business opportunities and we made contact with them, talking to them and making further appointments."
On the following three days they found themselves flying between Buenos Aires, Mendoza and Cordoba, attending breakfast and afternoon meetings with groups of local people from the business and education communities. They returned exhausted to Buenos Aires on the Thursday evening and woke on Friday morning to follow up on appointments they had made earlier before taking their places on their stands at a mini-education fair.
Mr Halluch has returned with several prospects for distance learning packages and a variety of contacts, not all of them made at official meetings. "I met a gentleman in the street who had been to Scotland and was very interested in Scottish affairs, and he was carrying around a copy of Mary Stuart in Spanish," he recalled. "We went for coffee and he turned out to be an oil safety expert. I invited him to the fair on Friday night and he has since made contact with three Scottish universities. Argentina is a market waiting to be opened up. They have no tertiary education as we know it although they are interested in vocational education. We have already been through a lot of what they are now experiencing so if we do follow up properly I think there are real opportunities."
The delegates were overwhelmed with the effusion of their welcome. Kirk Ramsay, from Paisley University, found there is a bond between Scotland and Argentina."It seemed to open the door much more easily than any of us expected. I think it would be good to build on that."
An invitation has been received from the Ministry of Education in Buenos Aires to send representatives to the Latin American Conference on Higher Education in November and to make presentations on the Scottish experience,particularly in extension programmes for higher education.