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John Mountford, Association of Colleges, UK

The Association of Colleges (AoC) represents England’s 350 FE colleges and some three million learners. We talk to John Mountford, international director, about the sector’s growing international ambitions, visa strife and how to promote English colleges overseas.

The PIE: There has been a lot of talk of late about colleges, public and private, being hit by the UK’s tougher visa restrictions. Have you noticed the impact?

"There are about 50,000 EU and non-EU students students studying at colleges"

JM: Well, we haven’t seen the dramatic drop that the private sector has had, not that we’re blasé or complacent about it. Obviously the initial clampdown was on the private sector, rightly or wrongly. The colleges we represent were given highly trusted sponsorship, fall into that state provider bracket and are Ofsted inspected.

Having said that, we feel there is a lack of understanding about vocational students by the border agency. There tends to be perception that if a student is choosing a course that is focused on a work-based outcome then they are somehow bogus, and coming for reasons other than education.

It is frustrating, because we do have a world class FE system and international students want to take advantage of that. It would be very welcome if our border agency was more embracing of that.

“A disproportionate amount of VET students are being told they are not, in the opinion of the border agency, genuine”

The PIE: Have they always treated VET differently, or is it a new phenomenon?

JM: It has always been the case, but it’s become much more apparent through these new credibility interviews students have to do on top of their points-based visa applications. It seems that a disproportional amount of vocational students are being called for these interviews and a disproportionate amount of those students are subsequently being told they are not, in the opinion of the border agency, genuine.

I think its a manifestation of the lack of understanding of our sector and tendency to unfairly bracket together vocational providers of all kinds.

The PIE: Is there still a lot of opportunity for British colleges abroad?

JM: Yes. Internationally there is a huge growth in skills and training to help people get jobs, and colleges in the UK are in a good position to help. A lot of countries, such as UAE, Brazil, India and Indonesia, have booming economies but lack a skilled workforce to take advantage of that.

Even in the European Union where we have a recession, people need to retrain and regrow their skills. In Spain for example there is big focus on vocational skills as they have coming up to 50% youth unemployment.

“Internationally there is a huge growth in skills and training.Colleges in the UK are in a good position to help”

The PIE: Where do most international students at English colleges come from?

JM: There are about 50,000 EU and non-EU students students studying at colleges. In terms of non-EU recruitment countries such as India, China and Brazil are big markets, and there’s interest from the Middle East and countries like Colombia.  The make-up is not a million miles away from what you’d see at universities and EFL schools.

The PIE: How do FE colleges find foreign students? Do they use agents?

JM: Each college has it’s own strategy. The majority of students who come to study on an FE programme come via a agent but others use institutional partners.

The PIE: Are foreign students predominantly using colleges for vocational courses, or as pathways into university? [More>>]

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