People working in international student recruitment generally have optimistic personalities, says Tim Fish, managing director at Dukes Education Group.
While he admits there was “a bit of a downer throughout the pandemic”, recruiters’ natural tendency to see the glass half full has helped them out of the other side.
“To a certain degree it’s idealistic as well,” he says. “The ideals of interconnectedness, multicultural exchange, the desire to contribute to a better world through international co-operation and understanding are generally optimistic. I think people who think like that have that type of personality.”
Recruitment has, he says, picked up again and Dukes’ six international boarding colleges now have more overseas students than before Covid struck. The UK became “plague island” at one point during the pandemic but its early re-opening and highly trusted school brands meant that it got back on its feet fast, Fish says.
Fish, who oversees Dukes’ international boarding colleges and the Dukes Plus portfolio of education services, has always worked in some way in the international sphere.
He started out 33 years ago at St Clare’s, an international college in Oxford where he was director of student activities and IB CAS co-ordinator.
He eventually went on to found Earlscliffe, an international 15 to 19 A-level boarding college in Folkestone, where he is still director.
He has been MD overseeing international colleges at Dukes since 2020, with Earlscliffe now incorporated into the group.
He says: “I’ve only ever worked in international education…It’s a commitment and a lifestyle, I went to university in America, I’ve always had a deep-seated interest and love for international education, I enjoy the international education landscape, I think almost the possibilities are virtually limitless.
“International education is a commitment and a lifestyle.”
“It’s stimulating, it broadens your horizons, it’s mind-expanding and you have this constant variety. You learn an enormous amount about other education systems, cultures, languages. You’re able to visit some of these places and forge career-long relationships.”
While the UK government may not have enjoyed the best international reputation in the past few years, he says, UK independent education has “not lost its lustre”. “Education UK is a stronger brand than gov.uk”, he says.
While international student recruitment may be constantly buffeted by forces outside of anyone’s control, Fish says demand is still strong as markets evolve and British universities still have strong cachet.
For example, Dukes’ schools have more Russians and Ukrainians than ever before. Many ex-patriate Russian and Ukrainian families living in the Middle East choose to send their children to the UK for schooling, despite a huge growth in UK private schools in the region.
“Dukes’ schools have more Russians and Ukrainians than ever before.”
“They still have the cachet and there’s a desire to go for ‘the real thing’”, he says, “it is still considered to be better than attending a British school in Dubai.”
He says the growth in business connections between the UK and Qatar is also fuelling the market and there has been an upturn in trade from Latin America and Nigeria where UK schools are increasingly promoting themselves.
Recruitment from China has not been easy, he says, except for the most high-ranking schools.
“We have a very high-ranking school, Cardiff Sixth Form College, which has maintained and not seen a decrease in Chinese interest and numbers, but that really is because of its nature as a No. 1 A-level college in any league table. So there are always going to be those very committed families who will want to go to that school as part really of their life plan.
“Dukes is now looking to expand its offer and recently bought its first international school abroad.”
“We’ve not seen a drop-off there. Elsewhere we’ve seen slight falls in Chinese interest, but it’s been made up by other markets.”
Dukes is now looking to expand its offer and recently bought its first international school abroad, in Lisbon, Portugal. “We see that trend for us looking to acquire or grow schools overseas, offering British and international curriculum. We probably won’t just be offering British but IB as well,” he says.
After Lisbon, he says there are “Two or three more schools in the pipeline”.
In the UK, a second campus of Cardiff Sixth Form College was opened in September — somewhat confusingly — “in the middle of the Cambridge colleges” in Regent Street, Cambridge, says Fish.
Other colleges with international boarders include Earlscliffe in Folkestone, Rochester Independent College and St Andrew’s College Cambridge, but they do also accept international students at other schools.
In the UK, Dukes — which now has over 40 nurseries and schools — is re-developing the stunning Grade II-listed Kneller Hall, the former home of the Royal Military School of Music as the new home of its existing Radnor House upper school.
A new £50m campus is also being built for Cardiff Sixth Form College in Cardiff Bay and there are plans for a new performing arts centre in Hampstead, he says. “The future is rosy in terms of the interest levels and our ability to meet the demand with quality product,” he adds.
With all this in the pipeline and more, it’s no surprise that Fish can’t help feeling optimistic.