The whole world in our hands

British further education colleges never used to look much beyond their own walls. Now, says Emma Haughton, they're going global
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The Independent Online

Three years ago, Tony Blair launched his high profile campaign to place the UK as an international leader in education and lifelong learning. For the further education sector, which had previously had fairly low levels of international activity, it gave new impetus to colleges to move beyond simply encouraging overseas students to study here, but also to get involved in a wider range of projects with institutions and companies abroad.

And the sector has risen to the challenge, according to a 2001 survey by the Association of Colleges (AoC) of 243 of its members. It found that as well as many increasing their intake of international students, 80 per cent were involved in a variety of projects across Europe and worldwide. Fifty-six were delivering programmes abroad, 145 had non-commercial learning and quality-improvement partnerships with institutions overseas, and 72 were engaged in franchising and consultancy work with international education and business partners.

"International work is an important source of income, but it's also strategically important for developing skills and knowledge of colleges' own staff and home students," points out Jo Clough, AoC international director. "International collaboration is an important means of preparing colleges for the challenges of the global economy."

Indeed, as a result of the AoC developing a working partnership with the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa), which delivers education equipment to schools, colleges and universities worldwide, it has brokered a deal for lecturers at two further-education colleges to provide specialist training for Mexican teachers.

"We originally came together with Besa over another project brewing in Malaysia, where we would be providing the curriculum expertise to go alongside equipment in pilot colleges of technology being built over there," says Clough. "This Mexican deal arose from that - Warwickshire and Bradford helped a British educational- equipment firm secure a £25m export deal. The Mexicans also wanted training to bring them up to speed in teaching."

With other states in Mexico now looking at this project, the AoC hopes that it will encourage other FE colleges to strike similar deals. "It sets a good example for other colleges working internationally and in close partnership with local companies here," says Clough. "With the latest figures from the DTI showing that education and training exports are now worth about £9bn a year, the opportunities out there are huge."

The range of activity in the international sector is diverse. City College Manchester, for example, struck a three-year deal with the Bahrain Training Institute to train local people in jewellery work.

"Back in 1999, the bulk of Bahrain's economy was based on petroleum products, but with the oil running out, the jewellery industry was the next biggest industry," says David Marsh, former training consultant at the college. "We won the contract to provide training, covering everything from consultancy, providing equipment, writing the syllabus, producing worksheets and handouts, setting up an exam system, and even recruiting staff."

It's not just the overseas institutions, individuals and companies that benefit, however; for cash-strapped FE colleges, it can bring in welcome income. But that's not all, according to Graham Snape, international manager at Warwickshire College in Leamington Spa, which has contracts with companies in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to deliver engineering HNDs, as well as participating in the new Mexican deal.

"The income is obviously a factor, and any overseas activity has to be completely self-supporting," he says. "But these kinds of projects also expose our staff and students to quite different cultures."

International contracts can include working in companies overseas and reciprocal exchange work, as well as going on training and work placements in other countries. "One in four jobs in the UK is now connected with international business, and that's growing," says Snape. "There is a need for our colleges to internationalise."

But it's not exactly money for old rope, Snape warns. Colleges need a reasonably sophisticated infrastructure to pull off any kind of significant international contract. "It's a good income, but none of these programmes ever run completely smoothly, and there are always a lot of details to iron out."