Western boarding schools expand to Asia

Throughout the past several years, tradition-rich boarding schools that had previously operated only in the West have embraced internationalisation by opening branches in Asia. Today, ICEF Monitor takes a look at this trend, examines what drives it, and asks what its future holds.

Consumer demand and government incentive

A growing market of Asian parents wish to give their children a Western-style education while keeping them close to home. For these families, boarding schools are an attractive option, not just because of their proximity, but because their style of learning is seen as a gateway into Western education methods, which tend to differ from the Asian approach.

Boarding schools also typically offer several advantages over local public schools, such as smaller class sizes, more resources, better quality learning tools, more challenging curriculum, and a diverse range of extracurricular activities.

The intangibles are strong as well. For example, because expatriate Westerners comprise a high percentage of the student body at foreign-located boarding schools, local Asian students gain exposure to a culture and way of thinking that can help prepare them for college or a career abroad, should they choose that route.

The strong Western presence in Asia is also a factor in the expansion of foreign boarding schools. In last month’s ICEF Monitor overview of international schools, we noted that more than 15,000 British and almost 30,000 American expatriates were living in Hong Kong. As in the colonial past, expat locals tend to send their children to schools that retain the educational traditions of their home countries.

What percentage of the typical student body do expatriates translate to? Numbers will vary. At Abu Dhabi’s American Community School, to raise one example, 59% of students are American, however the numbers of local students at international schools across Asia have been going up, reaching approximately 80%, when all types are taken into account.

From a governmental perspective, branch boarding schools are also seen as beneficial. While tertiary education abroad is seen as a plus, increasingly, Asian countries prefer their best talent to stay home during their formative years. Satellite boarding schools help to make that happen, and often benefit from generous loans and tax deals.

Toronto-based girls school Branksome Hall, founded in 1903, opened an architecturally innovative 95,000 square metre campus in October 2012 on South Korea’s Jeju Island with the aid of a US $170 million government loan. And the Hong Kong government set aside land in 2009 for the development of Harrow Hong Kong, a branch of the London-based boarding school that is the alma mater of Winston Churchill.

Pricy but seen as worthwhile

Attendance at Western boarding schools can come at a high price. Harrow Hong Kong takes a non-refundable HK $1,500 (US $193) application fee, a non-refundable HK $12,000 (US$ 1,547) entry fee, and tuition fees range from HK $118,700 to HK $159,800 (US $15,309 to US $20,609) per year. And that doesn’t include uniforms, lunches, and transportation.

Yet there seems to have been little problem filling spaces. International boarding schools’ popularity parallels the rise in demand for elite, name brand tertiary education in countries like China, where a burgeoning middle class are more concerned with their children receiving a degree from a recognisable university. ICEF Monitor reported on this trend just a few months ago.

Cost-wise, parents in Asia have in recent years long proved quite willing to send their offspring to overseas boarding schools. But for an increasing number of families, enroling their children instead at nearby branch campuses of elite schools, even when the high tuitions are taken into account, can be less expensive when the costs of travel to other countries and ancillary expenses are taken into account.

This stay-at-home trend has an impact upon the recruitment landscape. Long running recruitment fairs such as the ones run by The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS) are aimed at connecting Western schools with parents and students who live in China, Japan, India, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, but the idea that quality Western boarding school education is attainable only for Asian students who leave their home countries is increasingly less true.

Venerable brands break fertile new ground

In many Asian countries, particularly those of the former British Commonwealth, Western style boarding schools have long been popular. Historically, British families living in overseas territories sent their offspring to boarding schools to ensure that they received uninterrupted education within the British system.

Some of those institutions remain among the world’s most prestigious boarding schools. But the eastward move of elite, name brand Western boarding schools is a recent phenomenon.

A typical example of west-to-east migration is the British boarding school Marlborough College. Founded in 1843, and counting Nick Drake and Kate Middleton among its famed alumni, it recently opened a 90 acre campus in Iskandar, Malaysia, near Singapore. The school took in its first class of 350 students in August 2012.

The campus is part of a Malaysian government initiative to build an education hub in Iskandar called EduCity at Nusajaya. The campus will include Al-Bukhary International University, managed by educational strategists iCarnegie, as well as branches of the British universities Newcastle, Southhampton, and Reading.

Other venerable British boarding schools that have expanded to Asia include:

  • London’s Dulwich College, one of the first private schools to branch out when it opened a campus in 2007 in Suzhou, China, and which plans to open its seventh Asian school in Singapore in 2014.
  • Brighton College, which opened in Abu Dhabi in September 2011.
  • Wellington College, founded by Queen Victoria in 1859, and which opened in Tianjin, China, in September 2010.
  • Haileybury, which opened two schools in Kazakhstan – one in Almaty in 2007, and a second in Astana in 2011.
  • North London Collegiate School, founded in 1850, and established as of September 2011 in South Korea’s Global Education City, located on Jeju Island.

What does the future hold?

The broad trend of branch campuses of all types opening in Asia has slowed, but the steady microtrend of Western boarding schools moving eastward seems set to continue. For example, in 2014 Cranleigh School, based in Surrey, England, means to open a branch on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, Epsom College intends to open a satellite campus in Bandar Estek, Malaysia, and Wellington College plans to open doors in Shanghai.

Leo Yip, chairman of the Singapore Economic Development Board, recently commented upon the establishment of Dulwich College in his country:

“Singapore sits at the heart of a growing Asia. Even as the global economy remains uncertain, many global companies continue to invest in and seek growth opportunities in Asia. The establishment of Dulwich College will enhance our international school landscape, and support our efforts to attract more global companies to grow their activities here.”

His assessment cuts to the heart of the matter. Western boarding schools are profitable, serve both wealthy locals and well-heeled resident expats, and also raise the international profile of the host country. With global education expanding into an industry with the financial heft to influence national economies, international boarding schools are another important piece of the puzzle.



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