Many FE colleges feel they're losing out on opportunities abroad. Mike Prestage reports and looks at a Welsh college's successful track record (below)
A small group of FE colleges are to form an "inner circle" as part of an initiative to improve opportunities for marketing and recruitment abroad, and to press for more help from the Department of Trade and Industry.
The 25-strong group follows college principals' increasing concern that they are losing out badly to higher education in foreign markets. Government help is aimed primarily at universities; they are concerned that the DTI and the British Council appear unaware of what FE can offer.
Colin Flint, principal at Solihull College, West Midlands, says the department has not seen the full potential of the FE sector, "but that is true of the entire education system in this country. It is a problem we have always struggled with."
His college has already forged links abroad and has just landed a major contract in Ghana. A local company secured the Pounds 25 million order and the college will train Ghanaian science teachers to use equipment from the UK company Philip Harris. Solihull also has around 50 foreign students, mainly from the Far East.
"We are getting on with the job," says Mr Flint. "Although we are always glad of help, we are not sitting back waiting for the DTI to do things for us. "
John Heald, marketing director for the former Lincolnshire College of Agriculture and Horticulture since August a school within De Montfort University recalls a recent project in Estonia where it took two years for the college to discover - accidentally - the British Council had a permanent representative.
"They hadn't told us they were there. I just went up and knocked on the door and announced we were working in the country. I can't think that the British Council and DTI have contributed anything at all, apart from some British Council funds for work in the former Eastern bloc," he said.
The college is currently working to set up a dairy farm in Egypt in co-operation with Birmingham University. While the agriculture college concentrates on practical training in running a dairy unit, the university is handling the teacher training.
Such co-operation should happen more often. Many college principals believe that FE representatives should be accompanying trade missions abroad with their counterparts from universities. They claim there is also a need for vocational training.
A detailed survey is currently being planned by Lewisham College, south London, where principal Ruth Silver is a leading figure in encouraging the DTI to take more notice of FE needs.
Her personal assistant, Sarah Pugh, has already organised a simple questionnaire on college links overseas, a task not without difficulties. Many colleges decline to reply and others are unwilling to enter into details about what they are doing overseas.
Many refuse to comment on the extent of their activities for fear of another college poaching their initiative. "We can understand their secret nature but it is a flawed view," says Ms Pugh.
However, Colin Flint at Solihull says that the only problem with a major initiative is that it "alerts all the colleges to it and there is an advantage in a lot of colleges not taking the risk and considering marketing abroad. A few are quietly getting on with it and are quite successful."
Ms Pugh says it is hoped to draw up a register of what various FE colleges can offer so suitable representatives can be invited on Department of Trade and Industry missions.
"Nobody knows exactly what is being done overseas at present, but potential is not being realised. However, there is a lot of competition from other countries and accommodation for students is a problem."
Some college departments with a particular specialisation may be successfully selling themselves abroad while the college as a whole does little. The Department of Applied Optics at City and Islington College, London, which has achieved a worldwide reputation, currently has 18 foreign students. Head of department Mo Jalie says these would-be opticians have been coming for more than 20 years. "We are now getting the children of those first students. We don't market ourselves as such, but lecturers from this college attend conferences around the world and many of the English language textbooks are written by staff here."
The DTI is working with Lewisham College on its initiative and hopes to give more help to the FE sector.
"We know that there is a core of colleges doing things in the export market and a lot of others who want to do more," said a spokeswoman. "We are doing further research work into their needs and what they want from us."