International students attending colleges are providing a significant financial boost to the UK, with foreign recruits generating more than pound;1 billion for the British economy in 2011, new figures revealed this week.
But vocational colleges must not "lose sight" of learners at home as they become increasingly international and expand their overseas provision, teaching unions have warned.
Universities minister David Willetts praised the entrepreneurial spirit of Britain's colleges, which have set up operations in India, China and Brazil, and said there was a "huge opportunity" for further growth over the next five years.
But concerns are also growing that the focus on international development could lead to a drop in the quality of domestic provision. The University and College Union told TES that colleges needed extra funding to allow them to simultaneously develop provision at home and abroad.
"We should be doing what we can to harness and develop our already excellent reputation," a spokesman said. "However, this cannot be done on the cheap. Colleges make a vital contribution and play a vital role in their communities, and we must not lose sight of that. The central focus must remain on excellence and, if we are to develop at home and abroad, we have to recognise that requires funding."
The concerns build on comments made earlier this year by Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools. He warned that some colleges had "lost their way a bit and focused on capital investment, extending their reach, building programmes, going abroad to attract students and so on".
"As an eminent ex-principal said to me, `They need to start worrying more about what's happening in Deptford rather than Delhi'," he said.
Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of colleges, said: "Colleges need to look at government initiatives, local need and international strategy, and take a sensible but informed decision (on their priorities). There's no direct equation that means things will fall apart as soon as you start working overseas."
Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said that 19 out of the 20 most internationally active colleges had been rated "good" or "outstanding" by Ofsted in their most recent inspection.
"I've been on several ministerial visits overseas, and most of the conversations I've had (with education officials in other countries) start with higher education and end with them saying what they really need is technical and vocational education."
pound;3bn - Value of new education contracts overseas that the UK government is aiming to secure by 2020
pound;320m - Value of foreign students' tuition fees to the UK in 2011
pound;810m - Value of foreign students' living expenditure to the UK in 2011
pound;30m - Value of foreign students attending UK colleges in their own countries in 2011
66% - Proportion of UK further education colleges with students from outside the European Union.