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Why an offshoot of Country Garden has been buying British private schools

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Buying a British education: Chinese firms have purchased UK schools

In Decline and Fall the novelist Evelyn Waugh paints a satirical portrait of a minor public school in the UK where the annual sports day is a total fiasco. However, it is a very upper-class fiasco. After Lady Circumference’s son is shot in the foot by a drunken teacher with the starter’s gun she remains a model of restraint and sang-froid. So much so that when another parent asks if her son’s foot was injured doing the long-jump, she replies: “No, he was shot at by one of the assistant masters. But it is kind of you to inquire.”

Few Chinese will have read Waugh’s scathing 1930s novel. In fact the cream of these UK institutions are today prized by parents from China for their prestige and academic excellence.

As we wrote in WiC459, the popularity of the British education system seems to be rising, with Chinese students finding it harder to get visas to study at American universities. During the 2019 admissions cycle, a record 21,000 Chinese applied to study at British universities, 30% more than the previous year. During 2018 there were 106,430 Chinese students at UK universities, with a study in June suggested that Britain had replaced the US as the first-choice location for studying abroad (20.1% preferred Britain, with the US percentage falling dramatically to 17%).

In January, the British government published a policy document outlining ambitions to boost education-related exports to £30 billion ($37.26 billion) by 2030, up from £19.9 billion in 2016 (the most recent figure). This includes revenues generated by foreign students studying at schools, training centres and universities in the UK, as well as the income British educational providers earn abroad.

Policymakers want to broaden the appeal of higher education as the UK prepares for Brexit and the loss of EU funding as well as European students. In addition to simplifying the visa process, the government is allowing foreign graduates from 23 universities to apply for six-month work visas after study. Post-doctoral students can work for a year.

The attractions of the UK education system for Chinese students include learning the world’s lingua franca, developing a broader cultural outlook and joining an educational system that purports to balance academic achievement, pastoral care and extra-curricular activities in a way that promotes independent thinking and leadership.

As we wrote in WiC137, the University of Cambridge is particularly alluring for many Chinese because of the poet Xu Zhimo, whose poem Second Farewell to Cambridge is part of the Chinese curriculum. Last year his alma mater King’s College opened a memorial garden that commemorates his time there in the early 1920s. Walking through the city today, the uptick in Chinese students, tourists and long-term residents is palpable.

The University of Manchester is also extremely popular, with the largest cohort of Chinese students (12.5% of the 40,000 people studying there). That is partly thanks to the brand awareness generated by the city’s football teams and partly because President Xi Jinping visited the university’s National Graphene Institute in 2015.

The UK’s independent school system is also popular with Chinese parents. So much so that Chinese business groups have been buying British schools (Princess Diana’s old school, Riddlesworth Hall, is now owned by a direct descendent of Confucius, for instance).

The most active investor is Country Garden’s education offshoot, Bright Scholar, which has a portfolio of 69 schools and kindergartens across nine Chinese provinces.

The group’s most recent acquisition is CATS, purchased for £155 million this month. CATS – or Cambridge Arts and Sciences Colleges – has a boarding school in Cambridge and campuses in London and Canterbury, as well as in Shanghai and in Boston in the US.

A month earlier, Bright Scholar had purchased St Michael’s School in Carmarthenshire and Bosworth Independent College in Northampton for £38 million. It international expansion plan was set in motion last October with the acquisition of Bournemouth Collegiate College on the UK’s southern coast.

Chinese news site Jiemian says that Bright Scholar’s M&A spree is designed to “help Chinese students to enter foreign universities”, and will also help to diversify student flows away from the US, which accounted for 46% of the students China sent abroad last year.

Over the last two years other Chinese buyers of UK schools have included China Shougang Group, Heyi Education, Yali Education and China Gold Investment Group. Generally, the British have been happy to sell, perhaps reflecting another Evelyn Waugh observation that “the splendid thing about education is that everyone wants it. Like influenza, you can give it away without losing any of it yourself.”

But was Waugh right? Is it possible to give education away without losing any of it yourself? Earlier this year Barnaby Lenon, the chairman of the Independent Schools Council, told the UK’s Daily Telegraph that struggling private schools should be “jolly pleased” to receive Chinese cash. He also believed that new ownership and influx of Chinese students would help UK pupils to develop the “sense of globalisation” now needed for a successful career.

Social media commentators weren’t so sure, with some parents fearing that candidates from China would crowd out local applicants to British universities. “What planet is this idiot living on?” was one of the more irate responses to Lenon. “It has nothing whatsoever to do with helping the local people.”

Another potentially lucrative outcome of Chinese interest in British schooling is the export of some of its leading brands. Harrow School pioneered the concept when it established an international school in Bangkok in 1998. It now has schools in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong too. Westminster School is partnering with a Chinese entrepreneur to launch six campuses across the country, with the first due to open in in Chengdu soon. Wellington College is also active, after establishing its first international offshoot in Tianjin in 2011. Its head said the Chinese entity would mirror the British one in all but one respect: they couldn’t field a cricket team because there was no one to play against.

ISC Research calculates that there are now 857 international schools in China and 563 are offering an international education to Chinese students. The Chinese curriculum is compulsory until grade nine. But after that about 40% of the schools teach the British curriculum (GCSEs and A-Levels), 26% choose the US system and 15% study for the international baccalaureate, or IB.

The number of British private schools setting up has now extended beyond the biggest brand names like Harrow and Wellington. Newer arrivals include Reigate Grammar (building a school in Nanjing) and Derbyshire’s Repton (which is planning bilingual schools in the southern Greater Bay Area).

They all say they will plough some of the profits back into bursaries at home that fund students from lower-income families, fending off calls from left-wing politicians that private education is only for the privileged.

Indeed in the same week that Bright Star brought CATS, the former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband signed up to the ‘Abolish Eton’ campaign that wants to force private schools into state sector management. Supporters of the campaign want a similar commitment to be included in Labour’s next general election manifesto.

Nor is everyone so sure that China is going to be such a money-spinner market for the UK school implants. Bird & Bird education lawyer Mark Abell told the Financial Times that profits could be limited unless the schools can achieve larger economies of scale, for instance. However, the reputational advantages of Britain’s educational brand still seem quite compelling. The irony is that Chinese parents want to send their kids to British private schools because of the same sense of prestige and privilege that the Abolish Eton campaigners dislike so much.


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