Kate Green, director of business development at the 157 Group, responds to Sir Michael Wilshaw on behalf of the 157 Group International Network

It would be interesting to understand the basis for Sir Michael’s warning in the last edition of FE Week. Is he concerned our FE colleges are being overrun with foreign students, or is he worried that a college’s focus on quality could be undermined by diversifying its student body too much?

In either case, it is worth looking at the facts.

It seems odd that Sir Michael at this stage should choose to question what appears to be a central tenet of government policy”

The UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) figures for 2008-9 show the vast majority of FE institutions with overseas students have fewer than 200 such students on roll, spread over a wide range of curriculum areas.

What we can say is that the benefits of international work have been made clear over successive years – demonstrated by government ministers advocating a Global FE strategy. It seems odd that Sir Michael at this stage should choose to question what appears to be a central tenet of government policy in this area.

The important role of FE colleges offering qualifications to international students who may then progress to British universities, or, even more importantly, return home with skills they may not have been able to gain, is surely an aspect of global social contribution that should not be underestimated.

What do institutions have to gain from a vibrant international population?

Well, the financial benefits are one aspect – would anyone question the ability of leading universities or private schools to include large numbers of international students in their overall cohort?

It is worth remembering that the fees paid by international students contribute towards enhancing the provision of the college as a whole – and the use of local services by these students also has a direct impact on the local economy.

Should a group of students who undoubtedly bring diversity and a breadth of knowledge from which the whole college community can benefit not be encouraged to be here and study?

I am constantly impressed at the stories I hear from my colleagues in the 157 Group International Network about international students playing active roles in everything a college does.

It is often said that international students act as role models to others – either through an enhanced work ethic or simply because they appreciate the value of being able to access our skills system – which has obvious benefits to all. The global perspective is something we ask our students to develop – surely the best way for them to do this is to be exposed to those from other cultures and countries?

In an age where communities of learning are encouraged to flourish, many colleagues report that the opportunities opened up by international provision for the exchange of practice, for staff and students alike, have led directly to improved teaching and learning in the classroom or workshop.

And we must not forget the external face of our own skills system – why would we not want our skills sector to be a source of pride, and something that people from other countries might aspire to be a part of? Surely this is all about the reputation of UK plc as much as anything else?

All colleges have a local mission – they serve their communities well – the point is that they do not look to international markets to undermine this but rather to complement it.