Our small college in Perth has the whole world within reach - Dr Margaret Cook

With public finances being squeezed even further as the country eases out of the Covid pandemic, expanding into international markets is no longer a ‘ nice to have’ but now an imperative to the future success of the further education sector.

Perth College has forged links in China, India, Japan, Brunei and Iceland and is targeting new markets in Asia and America. PIC: Contributed.
Perth College has forged links in China, India, Japan, Brunei and Iceland and is targeting new markets in Asia and America. PIC: Contributed.

With the world an ever shrinking place thanks to the rapid spread of the internet, ‘going global’ is now the lifeblood of the financial fortunes of smaller education institutions like Perth College UHI. A strong commercial arm generating extra income is a must have on the balance sheet for all of our colleges as we try to remain relevant and viable in an ever changing global workplace.

While we will always be true to our roots and have a strong community presence, we have to be outward looking and keep focused on continuing to innovate and keep ahead of the curve. The various agreements signed at COP26 in Glasgow offers a plethora of opportunities in the renewables industry, with many nations now committed to cutting back further on fossil fuels and the need for innovative solutions to curb our addiction to plastic and to improve recycling rates. Fortunately, we already have a foothold in countries like China, where our graduation employment rate is almost 100%. Our electrical and mechanical engineering graduates sought after around the world, most notably in the green energy sector.

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We believe Perth College UHI has always been ahead of its time in reaching out internationally; students have been able to improve their English skills at our British Council-accredited Language School, which has been successfully delivering courses since 1971. Now, 50 years later we have honed our international offering through a twin approach to learning. Trans National Education (TNE) allows us to parachute in and deliver services on the ground internationally with a blended approach of lecturing and online tuition, while our ‘articulation’ approach allows students to get a good grounding in their own country before later finishing their course here. And as a leading partner in the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), the power to award degrees has obvious currency in the international market.

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With our international partnerships already established in China, India, Japan, Brunei and Iceland, we are punching well above our weight by further expanding in these countries and targeting new markets in Asia and America. In recognition of this, we received the International Achievement commendation for our service to international students from more than 50 countries.

The unique sell for a small city like Perth, with a population under 50,000, is ‘small is beautiful’. We believe the formula to our success in attracting international students is our highly rated student experience. Smaller class sizes offer more of a ‘extra personal’ touch and a vibrant social scene provides overseas students with a rich cultural experience.

The trick is not to be driven by seeing every international student as a potential cash cow, but instead balancing the financial opportunities with offering an excellent student experience. Unlike England, Scottish class sizes are capped at 20 meaning we can offer more one-to-one expert tuition, coupled with the warmth of the hospitality on offer in Perth. Our student feedback is that for many, studying and living here has been “life-changing”, as evidenced by Perth featuring in the top three institutions for offering the ‘best student experience’.

Edinburgh is traditionally viewed as the first stop for Japanese visitors. However, many will no doubt be surprised to learn that Japanese students are regular visitors to Perth for cultural excursions.

Clearly none of this would matter if our courses failed to offer a gateway to employment. This is where Perth is again paving the way by concentrating on a series of specialist courses, from access or foundation to PhD level. These courses, many of which are unique to Perth College UHI, are highly prized around the globe.

Our aircraft engineering course is a shining example. It is the UK’s only course of its type and gives graduates the opportunity to work in European airspace. We recently agreed a contract with the Brunei Ministry of Education, which will see around 20 students from this Southeast Asian country study on the ground in Perth. Our wholly owned partner, Air Service Training (Engineering) Limited (AST), which is based at Perth Airport, offers these students hands-on practical experience with access to a range of aircraft and helicopters. On finishing their studies, not only will students leave with a BSc but the degree programme is recognised by both the UK CAA and European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA), allowing our qualified graduate engineers to work anywhere around the world.

The re-opening of economies offers a range of exciting openings particularly in Asia, and we are already well positioned to unlock these opportunities. In South Korea and Vietnam there are opportunities to tap into the events market, such as music festivals, where there is a shortage of trained audio engineers. In Hong Kong, we can provide specialised training to teachers to help educate ‘gifted children’, particularly those talented in maths and music. And, in North America, there are opportunities to work with universities such as Utah Valley University, to offer MBA specialist modules in aviation and the environment.

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Who would have thought some 50 years ago, that a small town, now city, in Tayside would be helping to shape and respond to the rapidly changing global skills and employment market. For us, the journey is only beginning and just like many of our students, there are no barriers to what we believe we can achieve to leave our mark on the international stage.

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