Competition, finance and government support are just three of the factors to have played a part in the process of Lincoln College Group opening two sites in Saudi Arabia this summer, explains Simon Plummer.

Like many other FE colleges The Lincoln College Group has been operating internationally for some time following a traditional model of attracting students to study in the UK on a range of EFL, A-level and business foundation courses.

With many of our students drawn from China and Hong Kong we have had to respond and counter the fluctuating, and increasingly stringent, student visa requirements and increased competition from boarding schools, which competitively market their more traditional routes to university.

These challenges led us to think differently about how we engaged internationally and in essence we have moved from a model of attracting students to the UK to one where we now also export our educational expertise.

We recognised that the curriculum was simply one of a number of strands of expertise that exists within The Lincoln College Group with export potential

In its most fundamental form we have developed formal links with institutions overseas, sharing our UK-generated curriculum materials and methodology. This is complemented by the short deployment or lengthier secondment of UK staff overseas.

Assisting in the delivery of specialist modules, they also contribute to the training of the local staff to deliver our curriculum structure and develop teaching techniques.

We recognised that the curriculum was simply one of a number of strands of expertise that exists within The Lincoln College Group with export potential. As with many successful FE colleges, expertise in project management, human resources, marketing, finance, ICT, facilities and student services are all potential commodities.

There is a wide range of channels through which international opportunities are promoted, although very often the assessment of the validity of these opportunities is difficult and rightly many fail through sound governance and due diligence.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) first made us aware of the extensive reform of vocational education that was taking place in the Kingdom. This UK Government endorsement, combined with the global search being undertaken by the Saudi ministry, provided a high level of assurance over the integrity, longevity and reality of this opportunity.

The ambitious procurement timeline, and the potential of the opportunity, determined that a dedicated full-time resource and associated budget was allocated to the bid qualification and submission process. This investment, endorsed by the board, was wholly at risk if unsuccessful, but aligned with the wider strategy of the board to seek out more diverse income streams and indeed a legitimate investment of surpluses made from our existing international work.

The initial brokerage of UKTI led to our direct dialogue with the Colleges of Excellence, the Saudi procurement body, with presentations in London combined with the requirement to submit early expressions of interest and organisational data to qualify for subsequent stages. Our progression through these stages resulted in more detailed briefing sessions in London, as well as Riyadh, and the hosting of a Saudi delegation in Lincoln.

Our journey started in September last year, with final bid submission in late December and contract award in March. Provided with brand new purpose-built campuses, the subsequent five months have seen us fully mobilise all equipment, furniture, staff and infrastructure, enabling two sites to open in late August. Our third will follow next year.

Appreciative of the financial restrictions of many UK colleges, the Saudi Arabian authorities provide us with an interest-free loan for capital expenditure and, as a measure of the continued UK Government support, various grants are available through UK Export & Finance.

Lincoln College International is a commercial subsidiary within the group and our expansion internationally may be seen by some as simply a commercial decision. The diversification of income streams is clearly an important consideration, but deeper benefits must also be recognised.

Although not naturally falling within the scope of Ofsted, this does not exclude the international presence being used as a powerful source of evidence. The opportunities for staff development and progression now take on a different dimension; the potential for student enrichment diversifies and ultimately the sharing of the very best practice and opportunities for idea incubation multiply.