This week, we interview John Mountford, International Director of the Association of Colleges (AoC), the body representing publicly funded UK further education colleges, about activities, trends and challenges in the sector.



Please tell us about the international profile of AoC members.

“We estimate around 150 members do some kind of international work (they have Highly Trusted Sponsor status). There are around 48,000 non-EU students in this sector and 20,000-25,000 EU fee-paying students additionally. The FE sector constitutes around seven per cent of the total number of international students, so it is not massive but certainly an important sector.

Within the 48,000 students, the largest cohort is studying English or English plus courses. The second most popular course type is A-Level programmes, followed by International Foundation Year courses and HND foundation programmes.

From a sector perspective, business, IT and Maths are very popular vocational study areas for international students, along with healthcare. There is trend developing for delivery of these kinds of programmes outside the UK.”


How have the last 12 months been for the sector?

“There remain challenges with the visa system and credibility interviews are a worry [in late 2012 following a pilot scheme, the Home Office announced an expansion of interviews for student visa applicants]. That impact has been most keenly felt in the Indian subcontinent. The colleges that have been traditionally successful there have been hit, and have been worried about recruiting and have start to step back from that.

Of course we need checks and balances, but we are stopping people from working in certain markets. We don’t want to be so strict we prevent genuine students from coming.”


What impact have changes to the UK visa system had on the FE sector?

“We were certainly not as badly hit as the private sector FE colleges. But there is a lack of understanding from the authorities about why students are applying to vocational courses. There is an inherent Home Office bias towards students in the higher education (HE) sector. It sends out a message that the sector is not as valued as HE.

The loss of post-study work rights did not directly impact on our sector, as students will generally continue onto university from an FE college. We were somewhere in the middle in terms of impact. The Home Office are keen for dialogue with the sector, which is encouraging.”


How important are agents to AoC members and international recruitment?

“Agents are becoming increasingly important. We don’t have large enough tentacles to recruit directly like the universities can do. You need good agents to help ensure students are genuine; they add checks and balances. You have to make sure of due diligence in partnering with agents of course.”


What are the benefits to international students of study in this sector?

“You have quality guaranteed as these are publicly funded, government colleges. If your ambition is to study at university in the UK, then what better place to start and acclimatise to the UK’s academic environment? You have all the resources and social aspects of campus life.

In this sector, international students aren’t surrounded by other international students; the majority of students are home students. Therefore, FE colleges are great places to study English and English plus courses. Progression is a key word. Most students will be studying with us to progress elsewhere.

These are competitively priced and very student-focused colleges. The way we are set up, student support is a big part of what we do. It is a smaller, safer environment and a chance to build confidence and skills.”


What are your plans and forecasts for the next 12 months or so?

“Latin America is one area we are looking at with great interest. Inevitably, there is a growing focus on Transnational Education (TNE), and lots of governments worldwide are becoming more interested in skill sectors. In the next 24 months, we will see lots more partnerships developing.

Recruitment-wise, Latin America, Malaysia and Indonesia will grow, along with in-country delivery in South Asia.”


UK FE colleges will be highlighted in a special tertiary focus article on the sector in the November issue of Study Travel Magazine.  

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