It is all too easy to be insular. Nowhere more so than in education and training, where our preoccupation with policy agendas and targets makes us forget that other nations have issues that compare with our own. So it was refreshing to visit Saudi Arabia last week as part of a UK ministerial delegation, to see another country's education system at first hand. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is known for its great oil wealth, but as a nation it is only just waking up to the importance of technical and vocational education.
Due to its wealth it has relied on an expatriate workforce to do the middle and lower jobs in the economy. Saudis don't sweep roads or empty bins, or do many jobs such as plumbing or construction work.
But while the country wants to be less dependent on foreign labour, it also has a rapidly growing young population coming out of education with few technical skills and limited employment opportunities. Saudi Arabia will try to resolve this in the coming years by building new technical colleges and recruiting the necessary management and teaching expertise. The fact that such a rich nation needs help to modernise its education system is a huge business opportunity for us, to help develop their infrastructure.
It may be comforting for Ministers to know that we are not unique in having an under-skilled population. But there are other messages here too - about how we should put education and training not only in a national context, but in a global one. In 1999 Tony Blair launched his Prime Minister's Initiative to attract more international students to the UK and build sustainable relations with other countries through education and training.
Further education colleges responded by exceeding his target of doubling overseas student numbers to 50,000 by 2004/05 - although like universities, colleges have latterly seen their numbers of overseas students hit by tougher immigration rules and increased charges for visas. …