China demand for pricey international schools insatiable The school year at Haileybury College’s campus outside Beijing began with three People’s Liberation Army soldiers marching on a running track as the Chinese national anthem played over loudspeakers. Seven hundred students stood silently in single-file lines, their hands crossed, the international prep school’s crest emblazoned on many of their coats and T-shirts.international school in TianjinThen they sang the school song in English before heading off to class in brick-facade buildings modeled on a British prep school. For most Chinese students, attending a school like this remains unthinkable. But international schools from abroad are booming here thanks to growing demand from parents who are seeking different pathways for their children to attend college overseas, and who can increasingly afford more options.
Top prep schools from around the world are opening campuses in the country, often charging higher fees than their flagships and catering to students who want to go to university in the West. Attending Haileybury costs up to $28,000 a year. But Haileybury, which opened the Chinese version of its century-old Australian prep school three years ago, nearly doubled its enrollment this year and is considering opening a second campus in China. Getting into China’s best public high schools can be monumentally difficult, but regardless of whether their child has the academic chops, many parents are opting to pay for what they see as a less stressful and more enriching experience at an international school. “What they really care about is the happiness of their children,” said Wang Dan, an education professor at the University of Hong Kong. “Their future return on the student’s education is one concern, but equally important is the concern for the learning process.” The International School Consultancy, which monitors school trends worldwide, says the demand among Chinese for English-language schools like Haileybury is “insatiable.” More than 150,000 Chinese students are currently enrolled in international schools, according to the consultancy, which says the number of Chinese who can afford to pay seemingly stratospheric fees for those schools — even if it’s just a small percentage of the country’s population — will continue to grow, absent a dramatic downturn in China’s economy. China’s top public high schools are intensely competitive and often criticized as excessively test-driven.
Before their teenage years, children study long hours for entrance exams, often with high-priced private tutors. And at the end of high school, students take the notoriously difficult Chinese college entrance exam, the Gaokao, where a bad score can relegate a good student to a lesser university. A massive government-ordered expansion of higher education over the last decade has produced many marginal colleges whose degrees count for little. That makes an overseas education even more attractive.Western prep schools in China advertise a smoother pathway to university overseas, with teaching that emphasizes critical thinking over memorization and classes based on the International Baccalaureate program or others recognized abroad.
Once limited mainly to foreign children, international schools have been allowed during the last two decades to open campuses for Chinese students jointly with local companies. And while the Chinese government has sought to tighten its ideological control over textbooks and limit perceived Western influences, the international schools offer a valuable infusion of new teaching methods and options for China’s middle class. That opening has brought in some of the world’s biggest brand names, joining long-established international schools in Beijing and Shanghai. Britain’s Dulwich College now runs schools for Chinese students in the eastern city of Suzhou and the southern city of Zhuhai; Britain’s Hurtwood House operates in association with a school in eastern Ningbo. William Vanbergen, managing director of the Shanghai school consulting firm BE Education, predicts many more Western schools will enter China in the coming years. Some schools are already struggling to maintain their enrollment, but for most, China presents a “fantastic opportunity” to build a global profile, he said.