A recent investigative article in The Times newspaper has raised concerns about the continuous growth of exported and quasi-replicated overseas branches of elite private English schools.
The franchised “satellite college“, which first emerged in 1996 as an opportunistic venture in Thailand by Dulwich College and was quickly followed by Harrow School in Bangkok exploiting its historical ties with the Thai Royalty, now numbers about 100. The model is still largely found in Asia, and about 20 private school brands in England have got involved, as well as a handful from Australia, Canada, Scotland, and the United States.
About half of the “satellite colleges” are now in mainland China, and the unexpected growth has been largely fuelled (since 2006 in particular) by the need to find alternative revenue streams to maintain charitable status through using the income earned to fund scholarships and bursaries back at the “founding college”.
“The unexpected growth has been largely fuelled by the need to find alternative revenue streams.”
Although Dulwich pulled out of the first partnership citing ownership and governance concerns, it has continued to act as the chief pioneer and Dulwich alone now has 11 overseas branches, including four in mainland China.
In spite of the longevity and growth of the model, there has been surprisingly little critical analysis of the arrangements. Although the China-based press has begun to discuss the wealth and prestige linked to the development, the British press has been largely content to view the emerging relationships as a quirky and rather eccentric phenomenon. The Times newspaper itself has been seemingly happy to report on the growth merely as a British educational and export-earnings success story.
“The Times article also began to directly question the business model of the franchised schools.”
Although recent reporting in The Telegraph has commented on how China was increasingly getting fed up with the “satellite colleges” creaming off the best pupils, the franchise model was not criticised. However, this time it is the franchise arrangement itself that is coming under scrutiny. The recent Times article has raised concerns about the way in which people with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party hold positions on the school boards, and others have given interest-free loans to set up branches. Moreover, the Times article also began to directly question the business model of the franchised schools, as charities, discretely and perhaps unfairly earning income and profit that is free of corporation tax payment back in Britain.
Overall, we can identify a bigger picture, beyond mainland China, emerging related to the complex and problematic inter-connections of many “international schools”. Previously, these schools had been largely independent and autonomous in terms of their funding and governance.
“It is arguably also at odds with the mission and philosophy of many schools.”
By contrast, we know that many schools are now operated by networks of profit-driven commercial agencies backed by global private equity, and sovereign wealth funds. The entry into the field of international education of institutions with complex funding and ownership partnerships is arguably at odds with the high moral and ethical values that the field has traditionally displayed and practiced.
It is arguably also at odds with the mission and philosophy of many schools, which still extoll liberal values connected with sustainability and social justice. Altogether, we can see strong reasons why the continuous growth of English-speaking international schooling requires closer attention and more critical scrutiny.