July 2011 issue

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Hands-on learning

The vocational education sector covers a vast range of subjects and qualifications and is increasingly of interest for those wanting job-ready skills. Jane Vernon Smith reports.

Choosing to undertake a programme of vocational education in a foreign country confers a number of benefits, in terms of broadening outlook, language development and gaining practical skills of direct relevance to the workplace. Little surprise, therefore, that this route is gaining in interest for international students seeking to launch a successful career – either at home or overseas. And, in some destination countries, those who successfully complete a vocational education programme are well placed to remain longer-term in their adopted country.

One popular destination for vocational students is New Zealand. Here, there are around 20 institutes of technology and polytechnics, as well as many private establishments providing professional and vocational education and training at different levels. With student visas available for up to four years of full-time study, with the right to work for up to 20 hours a week during the academic year, international students are welcomed within this system.

However, students should ensure that they are fully aware of the language requirements for obtaining a visa, since, as Lisa O’Brien from Auckland-based Wellpark College of Natural Therapies highlights, these can vary depending on which vocational course is being followed. At her own college, for example, an Ielts score of 5.5 is needed for its Certificate of Massage, Diploma of Yoga, Certificate of Aromatherapy and Diploma of Aromatherapy, while most other courses require a score of 6.0, according to the college website.

Wellpark College of Natural Therapies is a private institution, offering students courses at certificate, diploma and bachelor levels, leading to careers in the natural health professions. Its range of natural therapy programmes include naturopathy, integrative body therapies, herbal medicine, nutrition and ayurveda [a type of Indian medicine]. Through website promotion, the college enrols between 15-to-20 international students each year.

Of these, O’Brien estimates that more than 50 per cent capitalise on New Zealand’s favourable immigration policy and apply for a Graduate Job Search visa, which allows international students completing a qualification in New Zealand to stay in the country for up to 12 months while looking for employment. “After that, we don’t have accurate data on how many obtain New Zealand residence,” she comments, although noting that the nationalities with the highest rate of students wanting to migrate is Japan and the UK. On finding a job, it is then possible to apply for a further visa for up to two – or, in certain cases, three – years under the Study to Work category.

Canada is another destination whose immigration climate smiles on international students. With the English language market reaching maturity, as David Oancia at Niagara College in Ontario, observes, “An increasing number of 18-to-27 year old students who previously looked for ESL education are now looking at the Canadian college system, as it provides excellent language education married to an academic rigour that allows the student to excel on many fronts,” he says.
In Canada, there is a blurring of lines between academic and vocational routes in education, Oancia points out, and Niagara College, which specialises in tourism and business management, offers full four-year bachelor’s programmes as well as one-, two- and three-year diploma and certificate programmes and postgraduate certificates. It runs courses covering culinary, winery and hospitality services, and, notes Oancia, is one of just two schools in North America that has a teaching winery.
As well as the attraction of this special feature, the college also offers the chance for students to put their learning into practice through “our innovative paid working co-ops, where students are able to work for Canadian companies”. Oancia adds, “Cost is also a selling point for international students since, at CAN $10,800 (US$11,196), we are actually less expensive than many private and public institutions at a global level.”
Out of a total of 10,000 students at the college, 1,000 are from outside Canada. They come from more than 70 countries, of which the largest contingents are from China, India and Korea – each with about 100 students each year, Oancia reveals. However, showing an increase of 50 per cent over the past two years, the fastest-growing student markets are Russia and the CIS countries, then Mexico, Vietnam, the Bahamas and Colombia.
As well as being drawn by the selling points already described, overseas students are also encouraged by the practical visa assistance on offer. “One of the college’s strongest features is that we have visa experts at the college. They help the student process visa extensions, student work permits, work visas, as well as US multiple entry visas,” he explains. A further benefit is that the college receives a visit each semester from Immigration Canada and the US Department of Homeland Security to explain the process of Canadian immigration and how to obtain the US multiple entry visa.
Over the past five years, there have been many significant changes in the system, according to Oancia. For example, students are now permitted to work off-campus after six months, while the postgraduate work permit now allows students to work in any field, not just in their area of study. “These changes have made Canada a much more attractive destination for international students,” he comments, “as they are able to secure work and accept better labour conditions at other companies, without the fear that they will ruin their chances of staying in Canada.”
Permanent migration is also an option for foreigners who have completed a course of vocational education in the country. “The Canadian Experience Class, as explained by Canadian Immigration is quite clear in this matter,” states Oancia. “First implemented in 2008, it allows international students with Canadian degrees and work experience the right to apply for permanent residence status. Additionally, there are provincial initiatives, such as Ontario’s Provincial Nominee Program, which promotes the right of Canadian-based companies to hire recent international graduates and qualifies them for permanent residence status.”
Until recently, the UK has also operated a visa policy that was conducive to encouraging overseas students to undertake vocational training programmes. With recent changes in UK immigration policy (see pages 38-40), however, “It is now far easier for students to apply for general English or academic English courses than for vocational courses,” according to Shane Wilkinson, Managing Director of the UK’s Bournemouth Business School International.
“It is unfortunate,” he adds, “that many so-called bogus colleges chose in the past to focus on vocational courses. The recent changes to the Tier 4 visa regulations are a direct result of this abuse, but the outcome is that visas for genuine vocational courses are now difficult to obtain.” In fact, he comments that his own college now maintains a list of countries from which it currently does not accept students, because of the perceived risk of a visa refusal. “We acknowledge that maintaining such a list is deeply regrettable and against our policy of inclusion and non-discrimination, but our priority has to be to protect our Highly Trusted Status [with the UK Border Agency],” he underlines.
Nevertheless, the college still enrols around 200 international students each year, of whom 95 per cent are visa nationals from the Middle East, Far East, Russia, former CIS, Turkey and South America, Wilkinson reveals. Popular programmes among foreign students are management, law and finance, since as he observes, “These are [perhaps] universally the most useful for improving career prospects in one’s home country.”

The London College of International Business Studies also recruits a good number of overseas students – around 100-to-125 annually – from countries as diverse as Korea, Turkey, Japan, Spain, Brazil, Colombia, Italy and France, onto courses including business management, business finance & administration, international marketing, public relations and marketing communications.

Consultant to the college board, Neil Pearce, believes that its vocational qualifications open up greater international career options for its graduates, which “can often lead to the students having the opportunity to move to other countries, either temporarily or permanently”. According to Pearce, such students are not generally motivated by migration. Rather, he comments, “They are interested in studying in an international environment to broaden their global outlook and acquire practical vocational skills as rapidly as possible, which will enhance their employment and career prospects, and which they can immediately use and apply in their work, usually, though not exclusively, back in their own countries.”

One of the advantages of taking a vocational, rather than an academic course, is that generally, vocational programmes are less expensive, he says, especially as many types of vocational training tend to be shorter in duration than other academic programmes. “Not every international student can afford three years’ university tuition fees and living expenses in another country…However, a much greater number of international students can afford the more modest fees and living expenses involved in going abroad to attend a three-to-six-month professional training programme in a vocational subject field.”

Furthermore, Pearce maintains, it’s no longer a question of choosing between either the vocational or the academic route. “For most, the need now is for both,” he states. “Most students attending our vocational programmes already have a first degree in an academic discipline (or, at least, are mid-way through one). To such students, the practical, skills-based, career-oriented nature of the vocational training we offer therefore complements the more theoretical base already provided by their more academic degree studies.”

As in Canada, the Australian system is much more fluid than the UK’s has traditionally been. As Amjad Khanche, Chief Executive of AIPE in North Sydney, Australia, highlights, the Australian education system is designed to provide a continuous learning process. Here, vocational pathways are the most established accepted route to university or higher education programmes, and vocational certificate, diploma and advanced diploma programmes are designed to enhance the complete learning experience.

At AIPE, diploma and advanced diploma programmes are available in business, finance, management and tourism training, which attract many international as well as domestic students. Despite this, Australia’s regulatory climate is no longer as favourable to international students as it once was.

As Simon Craft, Managing Director of Australian language school, Inforum Education Australia, explains, during the years of the Howard government, until the end of 2009, certificate and diploma courses in vocational subjects including hairdressing and commercial cookery would attract the maximum number of points towards gaining permanent residency in Australia. Courses would be sold on the basis of this and were, as a result, very popular. However, he comments, “It was eventually exploited by a few less-than-scrupulous colleges that willingly sacrificed quality in favour of short-term financial gains.” At the end of 2009, the Australian government decided to end the link between these programmes and permanent residency (PR), in a declared bid to stamp out disreputable operators.

“Needless to say, commercial cookery and hairdressing lost their attraction for international students looking for PR almost overnight,” he relates. “However, recently, courses in plumbing, carpentry, nursing, automotive (mechanic) and sports and recreation management have been gaining traction with those who are interested in migrating to Australia and, in higher education, engineering is also gaining in popularity, due to the severe shortage brought about by the mining boom.”

Craft comments that international students often come to ask for advice on what they should do. “Legally, only registered migration agents can give advice, so what we tell them is fairly limited. However, the first thing we ask a student who might be considering a vocational course that will lead to PR, such as carpentry, would be, ‘Are you interested in being a carpenter?’ This might sound a little obvious,” he says, “but students have, in the past, been convinced to embark on a course simply because it leads to PR, not because they are interested in the field. There is a risk in this because, as we tell our students, the Australian government can review which jobs appear on the Skilled Migration List with little or no warning, as they did in February 2010.”

Luckily, however, there is a lot more to undertaking a vocational education course overseas than just a possible opportunity to migrate. The chance to pursue a chosen programme of study at a top institution, to gain international experience, increased language confidence and gain a head-start in achieving long-term career objectives is an enduring motivation for the increasing numbers of students who are considering this educational route.

Rising demand

While immigration authorities have mixed attitudes to the recruitment of overseas students onto full-time academic and vocational programmes, it appears that demand for places is strong – and increasing. This is demonstrated, not only by the numbers enrolling directly onto vocational programmes, but also by those seeking vocational learning alongside a general language course.

Younger Intercambio Cultural in São Paolo, Brazil, for example, has been active in the language sector for four years. During this time, comments spokesperson, Marcos Gubernatte, it has seen a growing interest from clients – primarily those in the age range 23-to-35 years – in overseas tertiary education. This led the company to the conclusion that it should invest much more in the tertiary sector, such as colleges and VET courses.

“Considering the high level of student requests [for] commercial cookery, tourism, IT [and] hairdressing,” says Gubernatte, “we have introduced these programmes to our students as an extension to English courses – specially in countries where the visa allows students to work.” With almost 30 per cent of clients going to Australia and Canada requesting a vocational study add-on to their language programme, this move has proved positive, he reports, in allowing clients at one time to “upgrade their resumes, to gain qualifications and take advantage of a rich experience overseas”.

New option in Malta

Having recently gained accreditation both by Edexcel and by the Maltese government, International Vocational College in Malta will open its doors this autumn to students wishing to enrol in its course in Enterprise and Entrepreneurship. Students will be given the opportunity to experience different work placements while gaining internationally recognised diplomas. In addition, traineeships will be available for students to take up in the construction, social services, catering and tourism sectors.

Malta is a destination favoured by Europeans, as visas are not easy to obtain for non-EU nationals. However, with an annual tuition fee of e4,000 (US$5,706), it has already received interest from a number of students from Sweden, who are particularly interested in the Entrepreneurship programme, reveals Chief Executive Officer, Dr Michelle Gialanze.

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