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UK FE goes international

International director for the Association of Colleges John Mountford on how UK public sector FE colleges are taking their expertise overseas

The growing trend for UK public sector further education (FE) colleges in 2014–15 has been towards delivering technical and professional education on the international stage.

Transnational education is both interesting and challenging, and is exemplified by the impressive number of colleges that have taken up the opportunity of managing institutions in the Saudi Colleges for Excellence programme and those working through the UK India Education Research Initiative (UKIERI) programme to help build capacity in India’s new community college sector.

In the EU colleges have been engaging with the new Erasmus+ funding stream, and the Association of Colleges has been working closely with partners developing a growing EU college community.

Colleges have been growing their presence in new markets in Latin America, and we have seen groups of South American students coming to study in the UK through government-supported programmes. We continue to build close links through the UK China Partners in Education programme, and it was very exciting to see the ongoing support for this partnership agreed at the recent UK–China People to People forum.

The World Skills competition in Rio was a fantastic event and the positive impact it had on the participants clearly demonstrated the immense value of working internationally. The global demand for quality professional and technical education is evident, and the UK’s world-class college sector is well placed to play a leading international role.

But despite the enthusiasm that surrounds colleges’ global engagement, there are also significant challenges facing the sector. We have seen the introduction of a new government policy restricting the number of approved Secure English Language Tests (Selts) centres, which has made it increasingly difficult for international students to choose an FE college. International FE college students have also had their work rights removed and need to return home to extend their student visas. Colleges no longer have the right to sponsor students on child visas and face tougher implementation of educational oversight requirements.

These changes are in no way reflective of the robust, professional and conscientious approach colleges take to their sponsorship work. The sector continues to argue for a fairer differentiated approach, which is based on sponsors’ performance and not through the blanket application of policy to sectors.

Despite these challenges, it is worth noting that the FE sector is still very much open for business and our international students will continue to receive excellent tuition and support. The membership of AoC (www.aoc.co.uk) includes 96 per cent of further education, sixth-form, tertiary and specialist colleges. It supports, represents and protects the interests of its member colleges, as well as the rest of the FE sector.

The growing international interest in the UK’s professional and technical education sector is demonstrated by the overseas delegations we are welcoming to this year’s AoC annual conference and exhibition in Birmingham (www.aocannualconference.co.uk). On 18 November we will host a joint international policy forum with Find A Future and the British Council entitled Powering the Economy – Policy into Practice. We will be welcoming over eighty international delegates to share international perspectives on key issues around leadership, employer engagement, skills competitions, quality, entrepreneurship and international cooperation.

We are really excited about welcoming such a large group of technical and professional education and training experts to the UK. It will be a great forum to share good practice, establish partnerships and provide a springboard for helping to develop our learners’ global skills and opportunities. Senior leaders, policymakers and organisations linked to further education will be at the event – including UK secretary of state for education Nicky Morgan MP and Google’s head of education for Europe Liz Sproat. The theme of this year’s conference is Powering the Economy.