You'd be surprised to know that UK schools, colleges, universities and teachers face similar vocational education challenges as their colleagues in the Western Balkans. 

UK colleges have experienced a period of intense change in recent years, have been subject to almost continuous restructuring and have faced dramatic funding cuts. All issues that are not exclusive to the UK but also experienced internationally.

We speak to Association of Colleges’ international Director, John Mountford. With over 20 years' experience John offers an invaluable perspective on these issues and discusses how we can look to move forward.

How have UK colleges addressed these challenges?

It seems that the only constant in the modern world is, ironically, change. UK colleges have had to face up to a fluid domestic policy and funding landscape. However, the sector has met these challenges with resilience and responsiveness. We are a sector that has been forged on change and as a result colleges are quick to adapt and respond to the policy push and pulls that we face. On an institutional level our autonomous model of college leadership and governance supports a pragmatic and nimble response to change. It is also a model that promotes an entrepreneurial spirit and ability to adapt that is underpinned by a public sector sense of responsibility and duty. It is a model that actually works pretty well in promoting innovative solutions to changing demands.

How important has working with international partners been in this?

Working with international partners is an extremely important aspect of colleges’ work. We are training learners to be successful in global times and it is important that we ensure that they have the right skills that will allow them to thrive in a transnational environment. International partnerships help to provide learning opportunities through which these skills can be developed. International partnerships can also help colleges to share ideas and approaches with international peers which can help to drive up the quality and expertise in the sector. International activity also allows colleges to engage in larger ‘system to system’ programmes and to work closely with other UK TVET stakeholders. Finally, international partnerships can help promote our college programmes to international students which allows us to extend and diversify our student body.

As Director International at the Association of Colleges you have a good overview of the vocational landscape. What do you think makes colleges in the UK special and important?

An autonomous, flexible and adaptable model of College leadership and governance allows UK colleges to be responsive to economic trends and industry needs. We deliver programmes that are based on standards defined by industry and qualifications that employers trust. Colleges take a robust approach to quality that helps to ensure that our leaners are ready for their next step, whether that is into the world of work or for further study. Colleges work closely with industry and government partners to equip their campuses with up to date facilities that reflect the modern workplace that students are preparing for. The UK college sector is committed to a dual professional workforce that results in technical experts being trained to teach in the classroom. Colleges are also committed to teaching their students the technical and vocational skills they need for their jobs and the skills for employability that they will need for the rest of their lives. This includes embedding transferable, entrepreneurial and global skills into the curriculum.

You are aware of the Labour Market Intelligence showing high level of youth unemployment, yet employers report difficulties in recruiting staff with the right skills. How are vocational institutions in the UK planning to address the current skills needs?

Colleges work closely with employers to help ensure that they are teaching the right types of courses providing leaners with the skills industry needs. It can be on a curriculum level through world based learning programmes where learning is combined with working. A clear example of this is the current focus on apprenticeships. This collaboration can be on a system level with qualifications and curriculum defined by standards set by industry, and it can be on a local and regional level through engaging with LEPs. Colleges also work as closely with employers as they do institutions. Including employers play a key role in college governance, the design of bespoke programmes and regular meetings to discuss skills needs. Colleges are determined to not simply to react to industry needs but to be proactive in understanding and responding to market trends.

You work with a lot of international partners. What trends in the TVET do you currently observe in the UK and globally?

There is a growing trend to bring TVET and industry closer together through the delivery of programmes that reflect employers’ needs and help provide real employability skills. This has seen a decoupling of TVET sectors from direct government control towards a more autonomous model that allows for more flexible and responsive approach from TVET providers. Globalisation is resulting in the growing demand for transnational models of TVET which promote internationally transferable training and qualifications. There is also a growing global demand for Higher level professional and technical education to help fuel the knowledge economy, and this is starting to blur some of the traditional barriers between vocational and academic education.

Do you have a particular story you can share about some inspiring practices you have seen in a college that really benefitted young people?

I am constantly inspired by the life changing impact colleges have on their learners’ lives. It is difficult to single out particular examples but we recently led an EU project on shared approaches to reaching out to students who are currently not in education, employment or training. I was really struck by the commitment of colleges to working with all parts of our community however challenging or difficult that work may be. On a personal level, I started my college career working with Kosovan students who had just arrived in the UK and the work colleges do in helping to support the assimilation of new arrivals into our communities is a huge inspiration.

What do you think are the benefits for teachers working in vocational education and training in using our 'Vocational Education Exchange' platform?

The opportunity to learn from and share with your peers is a critically important part of any professionals development. The opportunity to do this at a global level, through the British Council, is extremely valuable, especially in the modern world. TVET is becoming increasingly globalised, the jobs we train our learners for are progressively linked to global employers so it is important that TVET professionals also think globally through networks like this exchange.