Ins and outs of attracting overseas students in turbulent times

Kim Renfrew looks at what schools can do to stand out in a saturated market, the issues they face and the huge benefits and opportunities that international pupils provide

Overseas students studying in the UK are a vital part of the school experience. Absorbing traditions and values they can use through life, international students also imbue British classmates with a global perspective – and they study in enough numbers to be an essential part of independent schools’ business strategies. 

According to the 2019 Independent Schools Council (ISC) census, 28,910 overseas pupils currently study here, making up 5.4% of all pupils, supporting 39,310 jobs and contributing nearly £2bn to GDP. 

But challenging times lie ahead for this market, where the number of schools seeking to attract international pupils grows, set against an overseas student cohort whose numbers have barely changed in five years – plus potential turbulence caused by Brexit.

1. Embrace diversity

Independent school pupils arrive from every corner of the world, with fluctuations in countries of origin. For example, earlier this decade there was growth in Russian students, which peaked in 2015 but declined steadily since. According to the ISC, with more than 9,500 pupils, China currently provides the biggest numbers.

There have been discontented rumbles around large numbers of students from a single country attending the same school, with warnings (in a Financial Times feature, for example) that “ghettoised communities” within schools can be problematic and integration difficult when “too many” children arrive from a single country – alongside concerns this affects the school’s British identity. 

Many disagree with this worry. “What on earth does the ‘British’ feel of schools actually mean, in a Britain where the large majority of people employed in the City were born outside the UK and where we’re preparing children for genuinely global futures?” asks John Attwater, outgoing headmaster of King Edward’s Witley (KSW), an 11–18 day and boarding school in Surrey, where overseas students come from 45 countries and make up 30–35% of pupils. 

Some schools have taken their brand overseas. Pictured: Brighton College Abu Dhabi

“Overseas students add immeasurably to school life in so many ways.” He is rather sceptical about the potential for a country to dominate, noting: “Numbers from particular areas tend to wax and wane with the economic, political and educational fortunes of the area […] We’ve seen rises in interest from Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, Romania, South and Central America, Azerbaijan and several African countries recently.”

This is also the experience at co-educational boarding and day school Brighton College, where 9.7% of students come from abroad, many from Hong Kong. Spokesman Norman Miller says: “Brighton College treats everyone as an individual to be valued and treated equally irrespective of where they come from. 

“Every pupil contributes something positive to the college’s identity. Diversity fosters a deeply held ethos of kindness and tolerance.” It’s clearly working; Brighton College was named Sunday Times 2019 Independent School of the Year.

Offering the IB shows a commitment to global thinking and sends a message that international students will be welcomed on equal terms

2. Offer the International Baccalaureate

If you’re a global-minded, international school seeking to attract outward-looking, international students, it pays to offer an international qualification – and the ISC reports their schools’ students perform better in the International Baccalaureate (IB) against the world average. The IB offers range and depth, with students taking six subjects including their own and another language. 

The IB Diploma is available at over 100 UK schools; KSW is one of them. “Offering the IB shows a commitment to global thinking and sends a message that international students will be welcomed on equal terms,” says Attwater. “The IB also offers a globally understood educational currency and is a global gold standard for university entry.”

3. Be concerned about guardianship

Ensuring there’s a responsible adult making decisions and looking after the welfare of minors while they are in the UK might be assumed to be a given. However, schools don’t have to get directly involved in guardianship and reports show that schools sometimes don’t know pupils’ whereabouts during weekends and holidays. Many schools leave it up to parents to arrange and not all recommend AEGIS-accredited guardians. 

Alistair Montgomery is director of independent educational consultancy Gabbitas, which provides guardians for international students as part of its service. He says guardians are “often seen as an additional cost, so they’ll go with the cheapest person, often an individual who’s just on the ground here, without any real policies, frameworks or experience. We’ve got a lot of people working in a very unregulated way.” 

At KSW, Attwater notes similar reactions among families: “We insist that all overseas students have a suitable UK guardian, which sometimes comes as a surprise and causes frustration, but that insistence has proved its worth time and time again.” 

Montgomery believes the best thing schools and families can do is work with accredited, experienced organisations and consultants. “I don’t think anyone in the industry would argue that it’s something which you can scrimp on because of inconvenience. Safeguarding is absolutely paramount.”

Lack of regulation and its consequences have led to the Department for Education demanding that boarding schools improve their approach to guardianship matters, with new minimum standards due later this year.

Gabbitas’ Alistair Montgomery says safeguarding is “paramount”

4. Don’t be (too) worried about the ‘B’ word 

We couldn’t discuss Britain’s global position without mentioning Brexit. However, the jury’s still out on whether it will prove a burden or a boon to independent schools, with Miller observing: “The situation remains in such a state of flux it isn’t possible to make any judgement on how it will affect the future of the UK let alone one school!”

Despite uncertainty, the ISC recorded a rise in European Economic Area (EEA) students this year. Montgomery believes “the Brexit thing is a bit of a storm in a teacup and over a longer period, it’s not actually going to make that much of a difference” to intake. In fact, he believes it’s proving beneficial for some families, because the drop in the pound makes a sought-after British education cheaper “and I think that’s offset some of the bad things about Brexit”. Attwater agrees, noting “the only saving grace is that after the referendum the fall in the pound made us 25% more affordable in the short run.”

In the long run, however, Attwater is less optimistic, saying: “Britain as a global brand has been damaged by the process, which has made us look politically inept, economically incompetent and globally uninterested.” He thinks current political turmoil allows schools in Europe, Canada and elsewhere to establish themselves as competition.

While Brexit doesn’t appear to have impacted EEA students spending significant chunks of their education in the UK yet, Montgomery has seen uptake of shorter courses affected, “particularly the Spanish and German markets, where students would only come for a term at a time”.

Whatever your point of view, the message remains: watch this space.

Britain as a global brand has been damaged by the [Brexit] process, which has made us look politically inept, economically incompetent and globally uninterested  

5. Invest in marketing

Montgomery believes schools “need to commit financially to the recruitment process”. Although he notes “we’ve seen a huge increase in marketing spend within the schools who are successful at it,” research conducted this year by William Clarence Education still found 73% of admissions registrars and marketing directors in independent education felt their schools should allocate more budget to marketing and student recruitment. 

KSW invests in attending school fairs abroad and has long-standing relationships with agents in several countries. 

“To maintain the level of diversity we currently enjoy we work hard to ensure a good spread of nationalities and native language groups,” says Attwater, “and also actively seek out regions from where we have not yet had pupils to extend our network.”

Investment doesn’t just have to be monetary. Independent schools already excel at fostering lifelong attachments among ex-pupils, which can be harnessed in the recruitment process.

Alongside its social events for Old Brightonians in 80 countries, Brighton College invested in technology, developing Brighton College Connect, a dedicated online networking platform that’s also used by parents considering which school to send their children to in the UK. 

Gabbitas works with students, families and schools around the globe

6. Take your school to your students

An overseas campus is a huge investment but one that can bring enormous dividends, both financial and reputational. UK schools that opened or partnered overseas generated a combined annual fee income of USD $833.5m for 2017–2018, according to ISC Research, the organisation that produces research on the world’s international schools market.

Harrow opened the first international school associated with an independent school in Bangkok in 1998 and ISC Research shows that, since then, 73 different British independent schools have opened abroad or partnered with an international school. 

Brighton College counts itself among those, with Brighton College international schools in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai and Bangkok. Miller says: “Brighton College UK’s extraordinary academic success, enviable record of innovation, and uniquely warm and supportive atmosphere are replicated across its worldwide family of schools.” Brighton College Abu Dhabi was awarded the highest rating possible by the Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge this year. 

ISC Research shows this is an increasingly popular strategy, with another 19 schools due to open in the next two years, mainly in China but also in Thailand, Singapore, Egypt, Oman and India. 

You might also like: The future of international education

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