Top UK schools swell with overseas students

Updated: 2015-09-05 07:46

By Wang Mingjie(China Daily Europe)

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Chinese parents look to elite colleges to ensure 'well-rounded education' for their children

Elite boarding schools in the United Kingdom are recruiting record numbers of overseas students, with Chinese by far the most common foreign nationality, studies show.

The Independent School Council, a nonprofit organization representing over 1,200 schools, says one in five new students now comes from abroad, with 8.5 percent of all ISC students classed as non-British.

The council's census found 2,893 freshmen this year were from the Chinese mainland, taking the total number to 6,344, overtaking Hong Kong as the top source for overseas students for the first time.

And this is just the beginning, according to Alexander Nikitich, founder of Carfax Education, which helps place foreign students at leading UK schools and universities.

"One reason (for the high number) is that more Chinese parents are prepared to send children abroad at a younger age," he says. "If you look at the number of Chinese students going to universities abroad, their numbers are much higher than those going to schools. But every year younger and younger students are coming to the UK."

When it comes to private schools, the UK and Switzerland are at the top end of the international market, he says, the only difference being that Swiss boarding schools are predominantly international, having few Swiss students.

"Traditionally, Britain was the only society where a boarding education became so popular and the model was developed over many centuries to near-perfection," Nikitich says.

Top UK schools swell with overseas students

Industry insiders say the principal factors that make the UK education market unique is that, one, the best private schools are independent from government interference - they have the freedom to choose who teaches there and how - and, two, the entire experience is aimed at producing well-rounded individuals.

British schools have a strong academic focus, but at the same time they "develop a student's personality and build character", Nikitich says. "Sport plays a large part at every British school, and creative pursuits such as music, art or drama are also important. British schools, particularly boarding schools, offer all of this in combination (to) help students to become independent and creative thinkers."

Alan Bird, deputy headmaster at the Brighton College, adds that, with its reputation for combining academic rigor and a broad co-curricular program that enhances a student's transferable skills and self-confidence, it is "no surprise more Chinese families are considering a UK education for their children".

Susan Hamlyn, director of the Good Schools Guide Advice Service, says that, going by what parents have told her, a growing awareness among wealthier classes in China of alternative overseas education has contributed greatly to the rise in Chinese students at UK independent schools.

"There is a sense among some Chinese parents that an English education offers a breadth and a focus on independent learning and thinking for oneself that, in their perception, is absent in Chinese education," she says.

Sandford Loudon, an Eton College alumnus, who is vice-president at Oakvale Capital LLP, agrees that independent schools are able to offer a more rounded experience, with an emphasis on sports, arts and academia.

"There are certainly big benefits to attending a UK independent school, one of which is the network one gains access to post-education," he says. "The training and analytical skills acquired at private schools stand most people in good stead, as well as equipping them with people skills."

Loudon had many Chinese classmates at Eton in 2004, yet he says the influx of Chinese at the college since then is the result of a growing middle class in China that is wealthy and realizes that speaking English well is beneficial.

Eton caters to many types of people, so there is no one-size-fits-all tip for potential students, he says, although he adds that it always helps to read up on certain sporting traditions like the field game played in the Lent term and the wall game, both of which are played only at Eton.

In June, Eton unveiled EtonX, a joint venture offering online learning to students in China through a mixture of interactive multimedia content and one-to-one tuition.

Participating schools are fully supported by tutors from Eton, who will travel to China to train and collaborate with local teachers, while profits from the venture will enable Eton to grow its bursary program. Annually, Eton spends 6 million pounds ($9.23 million; 8.23 million euros) on scholarships and bursaries, with one-fifth of students receiving some form of support, including 70 percent who pay no fees at all.

The changing student demographics at elite independent schools has, however, led some people to warn that the growth in non-British students may undermine the British feel of the schools, while middle-class families may be squeezed out because they can no longer afford the fees.

"An inherent appeal to all families is that these are quintessentially English schools, and the appeal of the schools falls off dramatically if they take large numbers from overseas," Hamlyn says. "Chinese parents tell us that they don't want to send their children to schools that are full of Chinese children."

A survey by The Daily Telegraph found some of the most exclusive boarding schools, including Eton and Wellington College, attracted 15 percent of their students from foreign countries.

"As the ISC census showed, schools in the UK are full and there is hardly any space to accommodate more overseas students," Nikitich says. "Yet the demand for a British education, especially from China, will keep growing."

In response to the demand, he believes it is likely that new schools will be opening in the UK and that serious investment will enter the British education sector from entrepreneurs.

Carfax Education, for example, is currently discussing plans with investors to build new premises for its pre-university college in Oxford.

"In the past few years, more private equity funds dedicated to investment in education projects have sprang up," Nikitich says. "Family offices and private investors are also looking at the investment opportunities that British education offers.

"A couple of years ago, we set up a separate business to work with investors looking at education projects in the UK and internationally, and this business is already busy advising on and managing such projects."

The second trend will be the establishment of more British schools in China, Nikitich says. A number have already taken their names there - Dulwich, Harrow, Wellington, Oxford International College. "I'm sure more will follow," he adds.

(China Daily European Weekly 09/05/2015 page23)