How UK colleges are adapting their international programs during coronavirus

“Everyone has had to adapt quickly and compliantly to a different way of life through this grim pandemic, and UK colleges are no exception”

Back in January, I wrote my first briefing for colleges about the coronavirus outbreak in Asia,” writes Emma Meredith,  International Director at the Association of Colleges.

It’s no surprise that China is one of the most important international education markets for UK FE, so coronavirus raised obvious concerns for college international business, partners and students. As the weeks passed, COVID-19 even elbowed Brexit out of the headlines – both in national media and in my college briefings.

Now in April, I am writing, and you are reading, from near lockdown in our own homes all over the world. Everyone has had to adapt quickly and compliantly to a different way of life through this grim pandemic, and UK colleges are no exception.

FE is a resourceful sector. When the UK government asked colleges to close, all learning was transferred online. To some extent, coronavirus has forced an answer to the question about online education.

Historically, colleges have not developed an extensive online VET offer, but we now have an opportunity to explore online provision for both domestic and international audiences. Could we rescue any of our cancelled EFL summer groups with online alternatives? At Dudley College of Technology, they are already experimenting with online exchanges.

Coronavirus didn’t stop a project between the college and its Indian partner Mahatma Ghandi International School, Ahmedabad. Dudley Diploma Photography and Professional Chef students managed to complete a scheduled exchange visit to India just before the virus forced India to close borders.

The colleges had planned a recipe book inspired by the visit. Rather than postpone the project, both colleges are now developing their ‘Black Country meets India’ cookbook online. Dudley students have been given free online access to digital software to prepare the cookbook whilst the Ahmedabad students are sending over images of their top Gujarat family recipes. In a time of very little good news – and when my favourite Indian restaurants are temporarily closed – I for one am looking forward to seeing the recipes.

College international exchanges, particularly through Erasmus+, were severely impacted by coronavirus as it spread across Europe. Brexit means all options are currently on the table regarding the UK’s future participation in the Erasmus+ Programme. But given the current collapse of international air travel and the closure of borders, should we explore short-term virtual exchanges so students don’t miss out?

There is much speculation about what the future holds in terms of international movement. I think people will – gradually and cautiously – want to travel again. There are tremendous benefits to a student’s outlook and employability skills from even a short experience abroad.

Supporting young people is the first role of colleges. I’ve spoken with my fellow college associations in Australia, Canada and the USA about how they are helping their international students who cannot get home because of COVID-19.

“There are tremendous benefits to a student’s outlook and employability skills from even a short experience abroad”

Here in England, temporary visa policy changes mean international students can study online and extend their visas in-country. AoC members are working hard to support their overseas students and swiftly put in place online support systems. Exeter College is making weekly welfare calls to both its international students and their homestay hosts, in addition to sending photo challenges and well-being tips.

New City College international students are studying on the VLE and setting up their own WhatsApp peer groups. The college also offers daily counselling support for any student who needs it. At East Sussex College, a rota is in place to call all international students during the Easter holidays, making sure they are not isolated. Colleges will do everything they can to support their international students.

COVID-19 has brought a constantly evolving situation and every country has responded differently. International frustration about the UK’s approach is partly inevitable. There is no hiding from the knock-on financial and reputational implications for college international business from coronavirus, and AoC’s role is to work closely with the government to help our colleges, and our students, through difficult months ahead.

About the author: Emma Meredith is International Director at Association of Colleges, the national voice for further education, sixth form, tertiary and specialist colleges in England.