Further education faces the daunting task of bringing about a fivefold increase in its overseas recruitment rate if it is to achieve government targets, it emerged this week.
New figures from the British Council's marketing arm, the Education Counselling Service, show that the number of overseas students attending English further education colleges rose from 28,163 in 1996-97 to 30,233 in 1998-99.
The modest increase of just over 2,000 students in two years sets colleges a mammoth challenge if they are to achieve government targets to recruit 25,000 more students by 2004-05. The figures are unlikely to be radically altered by numbers for Welsh and Scottish colleges once they become available.
The recruitment goal, set by prime minister Tony Blair last year, is expected to prove even tougher for further education than for higher education, which must quadruple its efforts overseas in order to hit targets. Colleges are relative newcomers to the global market and do not have the resources of universities with which to promote themselves.
An ECS spokesman said that the overseas market for FE was spread thinly across more countries than for higher education, making the British Council's multimillion-pound "branding" exercise to help promote British education less effective for colleges.
In four of the British Council's eight priority markets, further education recruitment fell between 1997-98 and 1998-99.
In an effort to boost further education's overseas marketing performance, the British Council has merged with British Training International, which was set up in 1997, to promote British vocational education and training.
Ruth Gee, BTI's chief executive, said the merger would help break down artificial barriers between student recruitment and other international education activities. Ms Gee said the government's targets were "ambitious" and could take time to be realised.
"There has been some ambiguity about the relationship between BTI and the British Council. It will be less confusing if there is a single point of contact for everything," she said.
"There is a growing interest overseas in vocational education and in access routes into higher education, but meeting targets will not be easy. Colleges must build up trust with partners overseas and that can take time," she said.