By Linda Sykes, International Coordinator, DN Colleges Group

DN Colleges Group recently won a national award for our international work. We couldn’t be prouder, this is a pinnacle for us of four years of hard but rewarding work with partners around the world. To tell you about us, DN Colleges Group is a merger of two colleges in the North of England – Doncaster College and North Lindsey College, Scunthorpe, making us one of the largest college groups of further and higher education in the UK. I began coordinating the international provision at Doncaster College in September 2016 (the merger came two years later) joined shortly afterwards by a new director whose remit included International. At that point there was only one small international project that we had inherited. Seeing the huge benefit of this to our students and staff we set about developing our international offer, we produced an internationalisation strategy, which we successfully achieved year on year and increased the value of our international work by 1000%. As the funding has grown, so has our team and we are now four people.

How have we done this and what challenges have we faced? The fact that we have a team dedicated to international in a supportive organisations is key to our achievement, I know that we are very fortunate in this. The first challenge was to get the message across to everyone in our large college, and then after the merger to everyone at North Lindsey College. This was helped enormously by the first participants in international exchange having positive experiences which we then harnessed to get the message across to their peers. Steve, a Construction tutor, was ‘blown away’ by his training experience in Finland, thrilled to see new techniques and equipment. Since this training he has joined our presentations to Construction students whenever he could, and he really does enthuse them with his first-hand experience.

A key part of our work has been sending groups of VET students to take part in work placements abroad for two-week periods accompanied by one of the International team and a curriculum member of staff. This is a short period of time but tried and tested to support students who are typically from parochial backgrounds, as both colleges are situated in areas of high deprivation. The experience can be quite literally life-changing for students who have their eyes opened to the wider world and further opportunities as well as being equipped with valuable and real work experience. Common feedback from students is that they hadn’t considered working abroad before but now they would love to. The change in students after a mobility is marked, the increase in confidence visible.  

A key local challenge is raising the aspirations of learners from our communities and our international projects have proved to be a really good way to achieve that.

For our organisation, the international provision is a unique selling point in attracting VET students to our colleges. Yes, they can perhaps study construction elsewhere, but would they have the chance to complete some of their work placement hours in Finland witnessing techniques and equipment different to the UK?  Yes, they can study Travel & Tourism elsewhere, but would they have the chance to complete work placement hours in the heart of tourism in Mallorca or Portugal? Or Catering students gaining experience in Michelin starred restaurants in the heart of France’s champagne region! The list goes on.  

Likewise, our international provision is beneficial and motivating for staff who have the chance to accompany their students on mobilities abroad. Furthermore, we seek opportunities for staff to attend training and job-shadowing abroad, this is valuable development to be able to offer staff and again a unique selling point in recruitment.   

Recruitment and retention of teachers, in particular vocational teachers who can often command much larger salaries in industry, is a recognised challenge and not only in the UK. We also are involved in projects, where we work collaboratively and strategically with a number of partners throughout Europe towards a common goal. We have just begun a new project ‘The Future VET Teacher’ in which we will examine this very issue. This is a great opportunity for staff to contribute to a solution to a real domestic challenge, through training and peer evaluation at our college as well as in Belgium, Finland, Latvia and Italy.

For DN Colleges Group internationalism has been very positive, contributing to our domestic goals and enriching our wider community. All VET students have government mandated work placement hours to achieve, being able to complete some of these internationally is a great help, not to mention the aforementioned wider benefits that students and staff gain. To achieve this, we have a network of partnerships across Europe which are mutually enriching. It is incredibly valuable to see how our global peers approach things and we are always learning something new and I’m sure this is reciprocal. We all face similar issues and it is interesting and useful to gain new ideas that we can adapt for our own systems. Working in international is very different to other departments in the college and it is great to have an international community of colleagues who understand and support our unique challenges.

As for everyone, the last year has been difficult, we are hoping that the situation will improve soon. We look forward to continued growth and to further widening our horizons.