Why UK colleges can't compete internationally

If UK colleges are to challenge international rivals on the global stage, a new approach is needed, writes Matt Anderson

Matt Anderson

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Picture this: armed with all your promotional materials, you fly into the country ready to deliver your pitch for why you’d make a brilliant partner college. All your meetings are lined up and your faculty heads are with you. You’re raring to go. 

The man on reception tells you: “The secretary-general is waiting for you in his office, please go in."  You walk in to be greeted by the secretary-general and another man. You’re told that the extra man is the secretary general’s adviser on vocational training, having been placed there by GIZ, a German development agency for international development.  

You make your pitch and walk out crestfallen. Clearly, the Germans already have this market sewn up. 

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Incidents like this happen all over the world. You visit a potential partner college and find a brand new, state-of-the-art training kitchen paid for by the Koreans, a Japanese engineering academy or Chinese equipment everywhere. How are you going to compete with this? Why would they buy from you when all this kit comes free or subsidised from a competing nation?

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How come they can do that and Britain can’t? People genuinely want British goods and services – but when other countries make things so much easier, who can blame them for looking elsewhere?

It’s simple really: the failing is in our government. Our aid programmes are not tied generally, our trade and aid are not coordinated. It is not uncommon to see an education programme carried out by a third-party nation on behalf of the British people (UK Aid). This wouldn’t happen with China, Korea, Japan or Germany, either officially or unofficially, because they use their aid to seed future trade. Britain, on the other hand, has adopted a “straight sale of goods and services” approach in the face of grants, concessional loans and offset programmes from other countries.

You do hear horror stories about these cheap concessional loan programmes in Africa and Asia, and the British tend to look at them with suspicion. But the Chinese, for example, do a tremendous amount of good in Africa building infrastructure with cheap finance. The frustration is that British expertise could often have done it better in many cases, but we are held back by the limitations of British government provision of support for the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) sector. UK export finance is now providing some good products but many college projects fall way below the threshold required to access this.

Other countries also offer the complete package – with added extras. If the Japanese manufacture cars in a country, they are going to set up a training school so they are built to Japanese standards. You cannot compete with this as a lone college. And if, for example, the Koreans build a new train line, they offer to build a training kitchen in a local college under an offset programme. What can we Brits offer the minister of finance in the face of such competition?

Access to funding 

The key to UK success is access to funding. After more than 12 years of struggling with this, we at TVET UK went in search of new sources of independent non-governmental finance. We are based in the City of London with trillions of pounds of potential funds available, so we sought out like-minded investors willing to help us to take on the Chinese, Germans and Koreans and deliver British educational expertise at scale to governments around the developing world.

This opens up a number of sources of funding to governments, with which we can fulfil education projects such as teacher training at scale or building/refurbishing facilities. We use the financial institutions to provide low-interest finance to the customer, which we can break down into bite-sized chunks of a bigger project into, for example, curriculum development, teacher training or equipment supply. We use our membership network to deliver projects, providing a soft landing or easy access to international projects for the college. Most importantly, we can guarantee payment. 

It’s not an easy process and it is time-consuming to arrange – changes of minister and, in many cases, president, can set you back months. But we see this as the only way to compete on the same terms as other nations who seed fund their success and influence. 

UK education is missing out on the bigger prize and will continue to do so until we change the way we work with our international customers. We need to make it both easy and attractive to work with the UK, as it is with the Germans, Chinese and Koreans. Until we work in the way the competing nations do, we will be left with small, fragmented projects that do not really solve a country's skills needs.

Maybe that's enough for your college to justify its international involvement but the UK FE sector is missing out on the bigger prize. And we will continue to do so until we come to terms with the mindset that we need to help the customer to buy from us over the long term and that requires the sector and the whole of government to come together in an effective way.

Matt Anderson is managing director of TVET UK

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