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03 December 2018 | Childcare & Education

International pupils in British independent schools – A global outlook

The prestige associated with British education continues to resonate across the globe and has long drawn international students to study in British independent education establishments. Due to their academic quality, steeped history and prestige, and because of the ‘Harry Potter’ effect, international pupils have been drawn to the UK and have had an important effect on independent schools in recent years.

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The Independent Schools Council represents several associations which account for around half of all independent schools in the UK. According to their 2018 annual census, there are currently 28,513 non-British pupils whose parents live overseas attending UK independent schools and 25,165 non-British pupils whose parents reside in the UK. This represents 5.4% of the total ISC pupil population and has grown by 5.2%, from 27,281, in 2017. 

The number of non-British pupils whose parents live overseas has increased 26.86% since 2007, with the predominant nationalities of these pupils changing over the years. For example, recently there has been dramatic growth in pupil numbers from China, but up until 2012, major growth was seen mainly in European pupils. There was a dramatic increase in pupil numbers from Russia between 2014 and 2015, however the annual census information for the last three years shows a gradual decline. The largest numbers of international pupils overall come from China, as the desire for children to learn a British curriculum in English is a growing demand amongst ambitious Chinese parents.

From a crude assessment of the Chinese pupil growth, it is apparent that this corresponds with the weakening of the pound. Some of the highest growth periods tally with the harshest falls to Sterling seen over the last 10 years.  

Historically, independent schools have relied on the increased fees received from international students, in comparison to the fees commanded for domestic pupils. In many cases the fees charged are significantly higher than those for British children and generally are used to help boost bursaries and scholarships.  

However, it could be expected that Chinese pupil numbers may begin to decline as parents seek out the private British international schools opening across China, which just a few years ago were restricted to expatriates. It is apparent that the Chinese government is now more hospitable to private British education for local Chinese students and as such we have seen a flurry of overseas franchises of well-known British independent schools opening.  

Whilst the opening of new schools is still heavily regulated, reputable British independent schools such as Wellington College and Kings College School, Wimbledon, have opened franchises in China, Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia. The openings of such schools have dramatically increased over the last three years, with 34 new openings in this time, bringing the total number of overseas campuses for British independent schools to 72.

Media coverage shows there is to be further openings throughout 2019 and 2020. For example, Reigate Grammar School has partnered with the Kaiyuan Education Fund to open five boarding schools for Chinese children, with the first opening in 2020 in Nanjing.  

This growth in education offering in China does not just extend to independent schools, but also private early years provision. Britain’s largest independent nursery providers Busy Bees announced the opening of 32 new British style nurseries before 2023 earlier this year, with five opening during 2018.  

The British schools which are opening these new independent international school franchises overseas will benefit from additional income to support their operations in the UK. There is a consensus that this additional income will allow these schools to offer greater bursaries and scholarships which are desired by the current government. Generally, the schools in a position to license their brand or open a franchise overseas are long established, well performing and well regarded. 

On the other hand, at what cost is this income generation for small independent schools? They often benefit from a good international cohort but do not have sufficient funds or appetite to franchise their brand overseas. In our experience, these smaller schools rely heavily on the income generated by overseas pupils.  

In addition to the increase in British independent schools opening overseas, regard must be paid to the uncertainty of the UK’s position globally in the lead up to Brexit. Although European pupil numbers started to decline from 2012, generally European pupil numbers have been consistent in the last few years. In the 2018 Independent Schools Council census, 33% of all international pupils were European. 

Depending on the terms agreed during Q1 of 2019 for Britain’s plans to leave the European Union, there could be additional visa requirements for schools with European pupils. There may also be an impact on pupil numbers, as European workers employed and residing in Britain may head back to their native countries.  

Although there will likely be a fall in European and Chinese pupils attending British independent schools in Britain, the UK’s independent education system is world renowned and attractive to many parents globally. Over the course of the last 10 years or so, the number of international students studying in the UK has continually increased and there have been many adjustments to the nationalities of the core international cohorts. 

We predict a further adjustment in the nationality of international pupils in British independent schools, with an increase in demand from emerging economies and markets such as South America and North Africa. However, we do expect to see decline in pupil numbers from China and Europe in the future.
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