Colleges that choose to extend their work internationally can reap rewards in many different ways, says Emma Meredith, but perceptions are almost entirely negative

Many readers will remember the now-infamous “Deptford not Delhi” comment made by a former chief inspector six years ago. The message to colleges was: focus on domestic work, forget about international.

At the time, stories about India ventures and revoked Tier 4 licences dominated the headlines (and let’s face it, good news doesn’t always sell). International work was tricky, expensive and not guaranteed to deliver results.

But is this the norm? The short answer is no. Why? Because we rarely hear about colleges’ international successes, however great or small. While external factors such as visa restrictions have caused some colleges to drop out of international work, others are quietly making a success of it, against the odds.

Any college that operates the most modest student exchange abroad or that enrols a student born outside the UK is doing international work. The main misconception about college international work is that it only fits the stereotype of doomed Saudi colleges or risky student visas, and that it must be done on a BIG SCALE. International work in colleges is so much more than this and is neither celebrated nor talked about nearly enough.

AoC’s 2018 survey of college international activity showed that colleges engage in over 20 different types of international work including transnational education projects, summer schools and the delivery of professional training and consultancy overseas.

The main misconception is that international work only fits the stereotype of doomed Saudi colleges

Why do they engage? It’s an inescapable fact that colleges look to international work as an alternative income source. Anyone associated with the sector or who followed the #LoveOurColleges campaign will know that college funding levels have been in decline for the last 10 years.

International work won’t make up the difference, but it can bring in income that can be invested back into central college operations once costs are covered.

But it isn’t only about the money. Some colleges are in parts of the UK with very little ethnic or cultural diversity. Institutions look to exchange programmes such as the EU-funded Erasmus+ programme to give their local students an invaluable opportunity to go abroad and improve their interpersonal and employability skills. I’ve heard many amazing stories of how life-changing these experiences have been for students and staff, thus benefiting the entire college. And that’s certainly staying focused on the local.

Colleges are simply not able to take major financial risks on international ventures. I think that ship should now sail. As a sector we have a responsibility to mitigate risk, which means colleges talking to each other and sharing best practice. Colleges might be in competition, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t, or don’t already, help each other.

AoC works closely with the UK Skills Partnership and government departments to position the college sector for new international opportunities. But we also advise government that these need to be the right opportunities, and that colleges need support to deliver them. Staff capacity, infrastructure and finance are obstacles, but colleges have fantastic expertise to offer a world that wants skills education and training.

Telling colleges that they should only focus on domestic work was another unfortunate example of the snobbery and ignorance with which colleges have been treated. Thankfully, in most quarters the thinking is starting to move on.

International work is difficult and doesn’t always work out, but it is worth it and does make a difference to the college community. Colleges should have the right to choose to do international work, and if they do they should be accountable and responsible. Colleges must always focus on Deptford, but they should also be free to choose Delhi.