British private schools are adapting to a changing market in China

Experts argue that the future of British education is inextricably tied to China.
Experts argue that the future of British education is inextricably tied to China.
Image: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
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In the early 2000s, British private schools began setting up shop in China, eager to leverage their reputation for excellence in exchange for the opportunity to add to their bottom line by educating the children of one of the world’s fastest-growing and most affluent middle classes.

In China, British independent schools—private schools with sister campuses in the UK—operate under two different kinds of licenses. When the schools hold licenses for foreign passport holders, only the children of expatriate workers or the children of Chinese families who have a foreign passport can attend them, and Chinese nationals are barred from admission. Because those schools cater mostly to expats, they typically operate somewhat outside the government’s tight grip on education policy.

Under the second model, the schools partner with local companies to offer a bilingual education to Chinese students (paywall), and have to adhere to the same rules as state-run Chinese schools, including teaching the local curriculum for most of the school year.

When these British independent schools started to open in China, they quickly exploded in popularity and, at first, there weren’t many rules in place governing them. “It was kind of the blind leading the blind,” recalls Julian Fisher, a senior partner at the Beijing-based education consultancy Venture Education. “The UK schools had no clue what they were doing, and the local government or the local partner in China didn’t know what they were doing.”

Things have changed.

In recent years, the Chinese Communist party has asserted its influence over academia. Experts say government officials have been alarmed by the spread of international private schools, leading to more restrictions on who can teach what, and rumors of stricter regulations around pricing, admission, and foreign teachers and staff. While many of these rules have not yet been implemented, Fisher says there is now a pervasive “feeling in the industry that things were being more closely regulated and more tightly observed.”

“I think now, local governments and the schools themselves…are just being a little more cautious,” he added.

At the same time, survival for British independent schools with foreign passport licenses has become more difficult. There has been a sharp decline in the number of expat workers settling in China, which makes it hard for the schools to fill their classrooms. An economic slowdown in China has meanwhile made opening schools more expensive.

These economic conditions, coupled with increased government regulation, have led to a slowdown in British independent schools looking to establish or grow their presence in China, according to a new report (pdf) released this week by Venture Education. Only four British independent schools opened in China in 2019, as opposed to the planned number of 14, according to the report. At least five schools delayed their openings to 2020 or 2021, while another five have not yet announced when they plan to open.

Despite this slowdown, Venture Education says the market for bilingual schools is growing, especially for the larger and more well-known private school groups like Harrow, Wellington, Dulwich, and Hurtwood House. These bilingual schools are now eclipsing the more traditional British independent schools serving foreign passport holders. “The demand is so strong for those that they could open hundreds,” Fisher said of the bilingual schools. “The only thing holding them back…is the government and licenses and locations.”

Some experts argue that the future of British education is inextricably tied to China. Chinese investors are increasingly buying up debt-ridden private schools in the UK, and China is one of the fastest-growing markets for UK education groups. Meanwhile, one in three non-EU university students in the UK is Chinese.

Fisher says that British independent schools also act like a harbinger of the Chinese central government’s plan for economic development. He says that local governments in Guangzhou and Shenzhen have used international schools as a way to attract Fortune 500 companies and their highly-skilled workers. These cities  are “likely to overtake Shanghai and Beijing as new hubs for international education,” according to the report. “In many ways, you can almost gauge where the Chinese…government wants to push commerce and wants to push trade” by looking at where new international schools are opening, Fisher said.

In its report, Venture Education says that while the slew of new regulations may have temporarily slowed growth in British private schools, the market as a whole may benefit in the long-run from what it calls “a more compliant Chinese market that regulates unfair competition.” The group expects 16 new schools to open in 2020, only two of which will be open to foreign passport holders.