Boom time for international schools despite slowdown

Boom time for international schools despite slowdown

International schools are becoming increasingly valued institutions in a globalized world, equipping students with the mobility to pursue university studies almost anywhere in the world. Recent research shows that despite hefty tuition fees, many have not only survived, but also prospered through the global economic crisis.

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Data from ISC Research, an organization that analyses developments in the international schools market, shows that total enrolments rose in several major Asian countries. In China, international school enrolment rose to 104,717 students in May from 91,807 a year earlier and just 7,268 nine years ago.

In India they rose to 45,873 in May from 32,276 a year earlier and 5,600 in 2000.

In Indonesia, student numbers rose to 34,948 in May from 23,949 a year earlier and 6,921 in 2000.

ISC’s database lists a current total of 220 international schools in China. In 2000, there were just 22.

New schools are opening across Asia. ISC notes that there are plans for eight in Hong Kong, nine in South Korea and 18 in the United Arab Emirates.

“In August, the Western Academy of Beijing turned away 383 students because the school, with 1,541 students, was overbooked," said Robert Landau, its director.

“Maybe the effects of the economic downturn are a year in delay," Landau said adding: “but at the moment, the top schools in Beijing are at or above last year’s enrolment."

Anecdotal evidence shows the trend is not limited to Asia. As students returned from the summer recess, the International School of Amsterdam in August counted 951 students, its highest opening day enrolment in its history.

“The situation has changed noticeably since the start of the financial crisis. As the global economy weakened and international businesses retrenched, we felt it," said Landau adding: “People were recalled and we were worried."

At the Amsterdam school, a dozen expatriate families returned to their home countries from January to June, part way through the last school year. “Students came to school and cried," said Edward Greene, the headmaster. “They had to say goodbye to all their friends," he added.

Nick Brummitt, managing director of ISC Research, said that schools which were almost entirely dependent on expatriate families employed by one or two large corporations, rather than the more typical mix of expatriates and local families, were hit hardest.

Many corporations include tuition fees as part of their salary packages for foreign workers.

When General Motors Corp.closed down local factories, families had no choice but to leave. “No specific regions have been hit, just specific schools," Brummitt said.

“Schools developed contingency plans to cut optional extracurricular activities and froze expenditure across the board; but no major building or development programmes were cancelled, though some were delayed," Brummitt said.

He said that by September the situation for most schools had stabilized, with departing students being replaced from waiting lists or by new arrivals.

“In China, firms that pulled back appear to have been replaced by others coming in," Landau said.

“We may see a shift in the companies sending their children to school, but there has not been a decrease in demand," he said.

Increased diversity in their student base may have helped schools to weather the storm. At his Beijing school, 21% of the pupils are American, 12% Korean and 10% from Chinese first-language families.

Before he was appointed head of the Beijing academy, Landau was director of an international school in Cilegon, near Jakarta, during the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

That school had fewer than 100 students, and half were Korean.

“Fifty Korean families came in December, and they all left in January," Landau recalled. He said: “It’s just not happening now."

Still, despite globally stable enrolment figures, some families with children attending international schools have certainly suffered in the economic downturn.

Landau says that he has received more applications for financial assistance for this school year than last. Annual tuition fees at the school cost roughly 200,000 yuan (Rs14 lakh), although the school allows payments to be made in instalments.

In the Netherlands, by contrast, Greene said the Amsterdam school had not seen any increase in families paying fees by instalment.

The school does not offer financial assistance to families, except in extreme circumstances.

“Over all, despite—and in some ways because of—the economic downturn, most international schools are thriving," Brummitt said.

“A fall in land prices, triggered by the financial crisis, is facilitating new school projects linked to major housing developments in India, China and West Asia," he said.