Ruth Owen Lewis, Head of International at Gower College Swansea and Dr Caroline Chipperfield, Director for Higher Education at Petroc College, Devon, share how they’ve seen outstanding transformation at their colleges through integrating internationalism into strategy and curriculum.
The UK boasts no fewer than 272 further education (FE) colleges, offering a range of excellent academic, technical, and vocational programmes to students of all ages and from all walks of life, as well as offering paths to higher education. Further education colleges are often transformational in their impact on their local area, improving social mobility and employability, enhancing tolerance and well-being and strengthening local, regional and national economies.
The UK’s further education colleges are also making waves internationally, developing sustainable partnerships, contributing to system change in countries they work with, enriching the development of their own staff and students and driving innovation. Here are five things we think all further education colleges should be doing:
1. Weave internationalism into all aspects of college life
To be a truly global college, international activities should be at the forefront, with a strategy that incorporates both staff and students, local and international, enabling curiosity and enthusiasm for the world at large, and in turn, creating global citizens.
The overall goal at Gower College Swansea is to bring the world to the college and take the college to the world, creating a dynamic, innovative, and internationally focused learning environment with all the associated benefits.
Petroc College’s international programme has grown from over 25 years’ experience. In order to work, a programme of internationalising a college needs to be authentic and fit with the institution and region. The key is to look for ways that internationalism will help develop your college strategy.
Petroc College has put internationalism at the top of the agenda, and now champions this as a key part of college identity. The picturesque North Devon villages and landscapes can hide the area's social, economic, and cultural challenges, there is limited internet connectivity, and the area can feel disconnected from the rest of the world due to sparse infrastructure.
As a major educational institution in the region, the college aims to encourage greater cultural understanding, learn about international development and the Sustainable Development Goals, address climate change, and present solutions to local and global issues. Internationalism is an essential aspect of this approach.
2. Get buy-in from departments and Senior Leadership Teams
Internationalising any institution can be challenging, and often involves a change in culture. Gower College has taken steps to embed international with the full support of senior leadership teams. A buy-in from departments is crucial to successfully internationalise – without their support you will face an uphill struggle; with their support, the world is your oyster! Accountability is also important - to get return on investment, there must be tangible outcomes such as sharing best practice or new mobility opportunities. All staff are expected to submit a report on their international work, and present this to the International Group.
3. Keep in mind that internationalisation is infectious (in a good way!)
At Petroc College, it has been seen that once students or staff catch the international bug it is transformational in the way they live their lives, study and teach. Internationalism also reaches across families and ultimately has a positive effect on communities, which despite the picture postcard landscapes of Devon can sometimes be isolated.
For over 15 years, Gower College has organised educational trips for its students through Erasmus+ and, more recently, through the Welsh Government Taith Programme. A significant proportion of the students taking part come from deprived backgrounds, often meaning the impact of the programmes are life changing. It’s profoundly empowering and ignites in students an eagerness to explore the wider world. One Gower College student, who had never travelled abroad before, was so enthused by his visit to Benfica Football Club in Portugal that he applied for a sports scholarship to a university in the US.
4. Employ different levels of approach
Review the local opportunities that help ‘leapfrog’ into international opportunities by developing links with global businesses or charities. Seek to change the community’s view and link in more closely to industry and employers’ agendas.
Gower College’s strategic approach to internationalisation comprises several strands – student mobility, international student recruitment, international summer schools and partnership development.
Petroc College has learned to seek out global allies with the same beliefs and aims and harness the relationships and abilities distinctive to the Devon region. Through a British Council partnership, Petroc College and IFMEREE, a renewables institute in Morocco, joined forces by signing a memorandum of understanding, recognizing the importance of renewable energy training. Petroc College is uniquely situated in a UNESCO Biosphere reserve, so there is an opportunity to concentrate on biodiversity, conservation, renewables, green skills and environmental protection. With its state-of-the-art facilities, IFMEREE trains one thousand people each year to support Morocco's national energy strategy.
5. Talk to students (and staff) about their ideas and aspirations
For staff, international linking can sometimes be seen as a nice to do, rather than core activity. Gower College has Departmental International Ambassadors appointed to assist with its international mission. The group also provides an effective communication platform, providing transparency to international work and enabling a joined-up approach.
Establishing a college-wide international group can be useful. It can take a bit of time to get it up and running and find the right members, but it is well worth the effort and helps with momentum, ensuring international remains on the agenda at the department level.
This is all part of altering college culture. Local students who haven’t travelled before can lack confidence and feel quite nervous initially – some take a bit of convincing to travel abroad! Students who have already undertaken international study or work experience act as ambassadors to the first-year students in our International Buddy scheme. This peer- to-peer approach is extremely effective.
The British Council collaborates with a diverse range of partners, including the Association of Colleges (AoC), to encourage and support international exchange and create opportunities for international collaboration. One such example is sponsorship of the Beacon Award for Internationalism, which celebrates colleges’ outstanding activities in international work. This year’s award was given to Gower College, with Petroc College named as a finalist.