A busy year of FE expansion with the likes of AoC in India and UK China Partners in Education means new opportunities are quickly emerging, explains John Mountford.

These are exciting times for colleges as they look to develop their international partnerships and activity.

FE is getting more global, students are becoming more mobile and overseas partners are more aware of the UK offer.

The education market is set to grow and it’s important that colleges position themselves to take advantage of those opportunities.

As all areas of the world wake up to the huge importance of quality technical and vocational education and training (TVet) in supporting sustainable economic growth, there is a greater interest in what established skills providers, like UK colleges, are doing.

Colleges are increasingly delivering pro­grammes overseas and in partnership with other providers.

There is a growing curiosity in our sector’s world class offer — a clear demonstration of this is that we welcome over 50 international delegates at this year’s Association of Colleges (AoC) Annual Conference.

Colleges, and the FE sector as a whole, have a central role to play in the government’s international strategy for the education sector, launched in July, and AoC will play a prominent role in the recently-established Education Council.

This year has seen the launch of sector-wide initiatives such as AoC in India and UK China Partners in Education, which has helped us to gain traction in these important markets.

On the back of WorldSkills and through organisations such as World Federation of Colleges and Polytechnics, there is a growing TVet international community through which colleges can build overseas partnerships.

New funding through Erasmus+ will also help to support colleges’ engagement with EU vocational education and training (Vet) partners.

Challenges remain around Tier 4 Student Visa regulations and the sector holds understandable concerns about the impact of the introduction of credibility interviews

Of course, challenges remain around Tier 4 Student Visa regulations and the sector holds understandable concerns about the impact of the introduction of credibility interviews for both our students and status as sponsors and there is still work to be done to promote a more understanding from the Home Office towards college and their recent visits to AoC college meetings is certainly step in the right direction.

The government’s international strategy is a perfect illustration of the opportunities this work affords colleges.

The strategy articulates our government’s acknowledgement of the huge value of the sec­tor’s international work from both commer­cial and educational perspectives.

It supports a more joined-up approach to working internationally, which would allow the UK to better position to itself to engage in large scale ‘system-to-system’ opportunities.

Through the strategy, a new UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) Education Unit has been established. It has been charged with working closely with providers, including colleges, to help source international opportunities and bring the sector together to help coordinate the UK response.

It is very encouraging to see the prominence of FE colleges in these plans and the clear ac­knowledgment of the important role we play.

The opportunities presented to colleges through this work also raise certain challeng­es and questions — how can they best position themselves to engage with international partners and initiatives? What countries and what courses should they be looking to work in? How can they take the first steps into these markets? How can they best resource and develop this work? How can they ensure quality of overseas delivery and how can they best support international students who come to study in the UK while also keeping a tight grip of their requirements as Highly Trusted Sponsors?

These questions will be debated, and per­haps answered, at our Annual Conference and colleges will be able to exchange ideas on how they go about developing their international strategies.

There will also be the opportunity to meet delegates from around the globe and gain insights into AoC’s work in this area and how we can effectively support our world-class col­leges to work on a global stage.

John Mountford, international director, Association of Colleges