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Prestigious UK schools push on with plans to open in China

Harrow School.JPG
In the 2017-2018 school year, Harrow received more than £3 million (S$5.3 million) from its international schools.

[LONDON] Harrow, the 450-year-old boarding school that produced seven prime British ministers including Winston Churchill, is poised to open five schools in China, undeterred by Covid-19.

Other prestigious English schools will likely follow, staking their post-pandemic futures on East Asia.

Demand for English-language international schools in the region is projected to double by 2029, with 1.2 million students enrolled, ISC Research estimates. The perception that China has managed the pandemic better than most is likely to increase its appeal relative to the more frontier economies that had begun attracting foreign schools as the Chinese market matured.

China is "tried and tested; it can be made to work", said Paul Jones, a partner at Farrer & Co, a London-based law firm that advises on international education. Schools are saying "others have made it work and right now, I don't want to be the first to make a foray into new territories".

English-language education has burgeoned into a US$55 billion market in the past two decades as a growing middle class in China, the Middle East and beyond sees the language skills and academic rigour as a way to give their children a leg-up in a global labour market.

The histories of UK's top schools give them a recruiting edge, and pushing abroad generates funds that can be plowed into scholarships at home as they seek to broaden access beyond the elite.

Harrow has been one of the pioneers of the global push, opening a school in Bangkok in 1998. Last year it educated 4,800 students at four schools in Thailand, Hong Kong and China. That's almost six times the number of students that attend the famed boarding school on a 300-acre campus in northwest London.


That gap is about to get much bigger with the new China schools. Harrow's international partner, Asia International School Ltd (AISL), will add 1,500 students with the opening of the new schools in September.

Lockdowns did temporarily disrupt construction and in-person recruitment events were cancelled, but the schools remain on track to open and enrollment and staffing levels are holding up, said Elvina Tsun, AISL's group director for marketing and communications.

"It looks like China has much better control over this, and it has given back confidence to our teachers and the foreigners who will come to China to work," Ms Tsun said.

When UK schools go abroad, they generally enter into a kind of long-term franchising agreement, where they lend their name and the educational expertise, with the local partner acquiring and running the school. The UK institution will receive some up front fees for development costs, but the bulk of the revenue comes from annual payments that generally range from 3 per cent to 8 per cent of student fees, Mr Jones said.

That additional revenue allows schools to offer more financial aid in the UK at a time they're facing growing pressure to become more diverse. The very existence of private schools has always been a political issue, with many in the Labour Party lobbying to abolish them and redistribute their assets.

In the 2017-2018 school year, Harrow received more than £3 million (S$5.3 million) from its international schools. That helped it offer £2.3 million in financial aid, meaning more than 10 per cent of students didn't pay anywhere near the £42,000 annual fee.

"When you start multiplying across five sites, the monies do start becoming the transformational amount that in an ideal world the schools are looking for," Mr Jones said.

To be sure, it is tougher for new entrants to break in, particularly in larger cities where the pioneering schools have already set up shop.

"If you don't have a great principal who understands how the local government and education system works, and you're not in a tier-one city, it will take you six-to-eight years to fill a 1,000 student campus, which is too slow for most investors," said Claudia Wang, partner at Oliver Wyman, an educational consultant.

Wellington opened its first school in China in 2011 and now has five in the country plus one in Thailand opened in 2018. Wellington educates more than 4,000 students outside the UK. That's about four times the number at its day and boarding school south of London.

"In uncertain times ahead, the international income adds an extra level of financial support," said Scott Bryan, international director at Wellington College.

Wellington, like Harrow, has also branched out to support bilingual schools opened by its local partner that follow the Chinese National Curriculum, which is mandatory for years 1 to 9. That shift will make the schools less dependent on expatriate families, who are more transient and likely to pull up stakes when faced with local disruptions, like a pandemic.

"The market is still changing at the moment," Mr Bryan said. "We think there could be some dip, but we don't think it's a long-term issue."


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