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Where grub meets graft

Overseas students are pleasantly surprised by the quality of FE in the UK, writes Steve Hook

Studying in the UK might be expensive, but you certainly get what you pay for -and even British grub isn't as bad as its reputation suggests.

The vast majority of FEstudents from outside the European Union go home feeling they have been taught by talented lecturers in well-run colleges, according to a recent survey.

The study by UKCOSA, the Council for International Education, revealed that 88 per cent of FE students were happy with the quality of their courses, although a third found fees higher than expected.

The need to learn English, before returning home or going on to study further in the UK, was the biggest reason for coming here, but once at college they found the benefits far wider.

Students report that they developed a greater sense of independence as a result of studying far from home in the adult atmosphere of FE colleges.

And they were pleasantly surprised by the food, which they had thought would not be tempting.

Other fears, such as homesickness and getting to know students from different cultures, also subsided once they were here, according to the researchers.

Satisfaction levels were also high - at 80 per cent - for the quality of information they were given about accommodation.

Students said the most important service they used was the international office, which provides links between college, students, their families and landlords.

The survey said 94 per cent of students found the advice from colleges "helpful" - with 51 per cent rating it "very helpful".

Dealing with international students requires the skills of a parent, a letting agent and a diplomat, as Diane Ray, international manager of Sheffield college, knows.

She has travelled the world for 16 years, promoting the college, as well as making sure the students are looked after while in the UK. She knows that sending a happy student home at the end of their course is worth thousands of business trips because word-of-mouth is the best form of marketing.

Some countries Ms Ray has visited - Japan, China and Vietnam - she will mention. Others are a closely guarded secret. Getting hold of students outside the EU is important and colleges are loathe to let their competitors in on carefully nurtured emerging markets.

Non-EU students come without Learning and Skills Council funding, meaning that colleges can collect fees, often in full and up-front.

But Sheffield college says the benefits are more cultural than financial.

As a city, Sheffield is developing fast and attracting increasing numbers of foreigners.

Sheffield college believes the experience of its home-grown students is enriched by the opportunity to make friends from overseas.

Of course, the cultural adjustment is inevitably greater for teenagers who find themselves in a foreign country than for those playing host on home turf.

"At home, the custom is not to stand out," says Ms Ray, referring to the Japanese students. "When they come here, the first thing they do is go mad dying their hair different colours. When they go back, they are all dying it black again so they don't get into trouble."

That the Japanese students keep coming is the result of years of careful relationship-building with a Japanese school.

Most of the students are over 19. But when she isn't recruiting, Ms Ray is looking for new host families for 16 to 18-year olds - one recent tactic being an advert on the college website.

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