Asia has a near-insatiable appetite for what British schools and universities have to offer – a time-honoured system of learning. Matthew Jenkinson reports

During the Olympic Games, China responded with a mixture of irritation and respect to Great Britain beating them to second place in the medal table. But Eastern admiration is less restrained when it comes to another field in which Britain punches above its demographic weight: its education system.

In Britain itself, educational commentators have spent the past two decades agonising over successive governments’ curriculum and exam reforms, or the impact of increasing tuition fees and research assessments. But the same period has witnessed a significant growth in interest from abroad, especially from Asia, in British education.

Liberal education is a great British export, and parents are attracted by the premium placed on critical thinking, especially in countries where uniformity and conformity tend to be the norm

Worldwide there are over 1.5 billion English language learners, a significant and growing proportion of whom are in China and India, where on average over 10 per cent of household income is spent on education. The British educational brand is already attractive in this market, with revered institutions such as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, highly-respected qualifications like IGCSEs or the Cambridge International A-Level, and historically-successful publishing houses, including Pearson and Oxford University Press.

David Willetts, a former universities and science minister, notes in the UK Government report International Education: Global Growth and Prosperity: ‘There are few sectors of the UK economy with the capacity to grow and generate export earnings as impressive as education.’ Little surprise, therefore, that British educational institutions are looking to expand their share of the Asian education market, principally in four ways: encouraging research collaboration between British and Asian academics; promoting British educational publishing in Asia; welcoming Asian students to British universities, colleges, independent schools and English language schools; and teaching students in British satellite institutions in Asia, pursuing largely British curricula and qualifications.


The last two methods have been especially notable. The number of Asian students on British campuses, and the number of British campuses on Asian soil, have increased dramatically over the past decade. It has been estimated that by 2020, income from overseas higher education students studying in the UK will reach over £12 billion, with a significant number coming from China and India.

For international students who wish to experience British-style higher education without leaving home, transnational education opportunities have been

The Asian market does not want to pay for a franchise name and nothing more; it demands access to top-level faculty and a constant dialogue between the home and satellite campuses

developing, most significantly in China and Hong Kong, the UAE, Malaysia and Singapore. At each of these ‘International Branch Campuses’, the home institution co-ordinates the syllabuses, examinations and overall quality control. Some employ ‘flying faculty’ who spend short periods of time teaching at their university’s satellite campus.

In China and Hong Kong one can now study at the IBCs of the universities of Nottingham (Ningbo) and Surrey (Dalian), as well as Manchester Business School (Shanghai and Hong Kong). The UAE has satellite campuses of Heriot-Watt, Manchester Business School, Middlesex, Bradford, Exeter, London Business School and CASS Business School (all in Dubai) and Bolton (Ras Al Khaimah). Singapore has outposts of Manchester Business School and Queen Margaret University Edinburgh, while Malaysians can study at the universities of Newcastle, Nottingham or Lancaster. There are currently over 1,000 students in India working towards University of London qualifications, and a further 3,000 in Pakistan.

Access to great universities is what motivates many Asian and expatriate families to send their children to a school on British soil, an English-medium school in Asia, or to a British School Overseas (BSO). ISC Research Ltd has predicted that, by 2022, there will be nearly 6.2 million students at English-medium schools worldwide, of whom 2.75 million will be learning at BSOs, bringing in £17.2 billion in fees. These figures are pretty much double those for just a decade previously.

Hong Kong alone has seen the international school sector grow by 90 per cent in the past six years. In an issue of Britain in Hong Kong devoted entirely to British-style education in the area, Heidi Cheung, Head of Education for Hong Kong and Macao, UK Trade and Investment, notes that the ‘growing demand for high-quality, British-style education’ comes from an appreciation that ‘quality matters in early childhood education and care’.

ACROSS THE BOARD: London's Harrow school (l), and one of the school's Asian outposts in Beijing
ACROSS THE BOARD: London’s Harrow school (l), and one of the school’s Asian outposts in Beijing

There are currently 44 British independent school campuses overseas, 20 more than just three years ago. India has only just seen its first British partnership school, King’s College Taunton’s campus in Rohtak. But in the Middle and Far East, they are mushrooming. Dulwich College has the most outposts (Shanghai, Beijing, Suzhou, Seoul, Singapore, Yangon, Zhuhai). Other famous names are Harrow (Bangkok, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai), Repton (Dubai, Abu Dhabi), Wellington (Dubai, Shanghai, Tianjin, Qatar), Brighton College (Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Bangkok), and Marlborough College (Malaysia).

Pupils gain access to world-class higher education opportunities at these institutions, but there are other advantages. Liberal education is a great British export, and parents are attracted by the premium placed on critical thinking, especially in countries where uniformity and conformity tend to be the norm. As Ian McIntyre, Brighton College International Schools’ Director of Schools, puts it, students want ‘to be free to think and contribute’. They, and their families, also welcome opportunities to develop service and leadership skills, as well as the emphasis on pastoral care that lies beneath the veneer of the Harry Potter-style house system.

If British institutions can tap into burgeoning Asian economies, where there is high demand for British-style education and the wherewithal to pay for it, the profits can help keep tuition fees at an affordable level at home, as well as funding bursaries, philanthropic projects, and day-to-day running costs. But these institutions can also hope to attract and nurture hitherto unrealised talent. British academics can take part in research projects supported by overseas funds – the India-UK Advanced Technology Centre (IU-ATC), for example, has supported research projects in telecoms engineering since 2006. More fundamentally, future generations of both school and university students from different cultures will, in theory, learn to work alongside and understand one another.

Those institutions most successful in exporting British education to Asia focus on the mutual benefits. The Asian market does not want to pay for a franchise name and nothing more; it demands access to top-level faculty and a constant dialogue between the home and satellite campuses. As Reg Jordan, Provost and CEO of Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia told The Guardian: ‘You can’t come in here like some neo-imperialist. You have to understand what the host wants: moving their population up the knowledge chain.’

Indeed, it is also crucial for British institutions to exercise sensitivity when blending British education with the local culture. It takes time to understand local regulations and to work out which partners in which areas have an educational and ethical policy consonant with the home institution. Robert Pick, Master of Marlborough College Malaysia, notes that ‘we honour our host country and believe our pupils do need to be cognisant of the local history, geography, culture and religion’, adding: ‘We would never wish to be a microcosm of England transported into Asia.’

HOME TUTORING: Newcastle University's Malaysia campus and Heriot- Watt's satellite campus in Dubai
HOME TUTORING: Newcastle University’s Malaysia campus and Heriot-Watt’s satellite campus in Dubai

Challenges and risks include quality control of satellite campuses thousands of miles away; potential limitations on political expression and academic freedom; labyrinthine local regulations; and the possible damage to the home brand if the international project is unsuccessful. If home institutions do not invest attention and expertise, there can be resentment and dislocation between partner institutions. And, as exciting as it may be to look East, British schools and universities cannot afford to neglect their home market while diverting their energies and expertise overseas.

The most instantly-recognisable British school brand, Eton College, is reducing some of the more obvious risks by eschewing a satellite campus and opting for exporting its liberal education online. ‘There is only one Eton,’ says Catherine Whitaker, Managing Director of EtonX, and much of its ethos comes from its location and traditions in the heart of historic England. EtonX therefore works with local educational partners in Asia to provide an Eton-style curriculum and assessment programme, centred on developing the kinds of skills one would expect to find among the College’s pupils. Leadership skills are made a priority, but so are the ‘soft’ skills necessary for developing the ‘whole person’. EtonX does not just want to get its Asian pupils into the top universities; it wants to ensure that once there, they have the tenacity and educational toolkit they will need.

The British educational brand has earned its ‘gold standard’ status in part due to the longevity of its most successful institutions. Often this has been achieved through reliance on tradition rather than risk-taking international ventures. Some established mentalities, and slow-working governance structures, may need disrupting if British educational providers wish to participate further in the rapidly-moving Asian education market. But with the right balance of enthusiasm, cultural sensitivity, focus on mutual benefits, and a keen eye for local regulations, many more British institutions will see that disruption as worthwhile.

Matthew Jenkinson received his doctorate from Merton College, Oxford, and has spent the past decade teaching at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels in Oxford, where he is a Member of the Senior Common Room of New College. He is a frequent contributor to the UK educational press

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