25 November 2020

The future is bright for Britain’s independent schools – at home and abroad

By Andrew Lewer MP

Independent schools are an important component of Britain’s soft power, attracting international students to the UK and expanding their operations abroad.

Domestic students benefit from living and learning alongside their international classmates, and they contribute an important – and for some schools a critical – source of additional revenue. Foreign students benefit the UK economy, both in overall revenue terms and particularly in the areas where successful independent schools are based.

There is, however, an important challenge that will now need to be overcome, and that is an excessive concentration on the Chinese market. Chinese students are the largest cohort of overseas boarders in the country (over 25% when combining China and Hong Kong). A very large slice of this revenue is now at risk due to two converging factors: at the exact time coronavirus struck, with the huge difficulties it has brought to the independent education sector and the incomes of its customers, the not entirely unrelated issue of relations with China has come to the fore. 

The Chinese state keeps around 1,000,000 people in concentration camps, actively sterilises thousands of women for being the ‘wrong’ race and religion, and sells the organs and hair of prisoners.

Abhorrence at the activities of the Chinese state is no longer a fringe position – the Foreign Secretary himself said on the BBC on July 19 that forced sterilisation and wider persecution of the Uighur Muslims by the Chinese government were “reminiscent of something not seen for a long time”. Even if many in the West were slow to appreciate the true and worsening nature of the Chinese Communist regime under President Xi Jinping, and the movement from authoritarian to totalitarian, it is beyond question that this realisation is now mainstream.

It is, furthermore, cross-party at a time when political consensus in the UK has been especially hard to come by. And it is not just a change in rhetorical tone, it is leading to policy changes of which Huawei / 5G and the immigration status of British National (Overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong are just the start.

Unless China stops the activities which give rise to this reaction – pick your provocation from the Uighurs, Hong Kong, Tibet, the Indian border, suppression of information around coronavirus, cyber warfare, the South China Sea, Taiwan and general totalitarianism – I very much doubt these views will lessen now.

Because of these increasing tensions there is a likelihood that students from China will not continue to choose a UK education in the same sorts of numbers in the future. There is, furthermore, a need for vigilance to ensure that the perniciousness of self-censorship does not find its way into schools due to either a desire to ‘protect’ Chinese pupils from debate about democracy, human rights and the rule of law or – worse – a desire to mould the curriculum to appeal to Chinese parents.

The pressures on UK schools with campuses in China are even greater. At what point does providing a British-style education abroad prove impossible without betraying the great principles – freedom, choice, fearlessness, inquisitiveness – upon which those schools were founded in the first place? I would suggest it is at the point when an authoritarian state becomes a totalitarian state, and further suggest that point has been more than reached in Communist China. Whether such a state will actually want international schools that are free to operate beyond complete state control in the future is something those seeking to establish, expand or even remain in China should give active consideration to as well. 

Schools need to look to other markets, either to attract pupils from or to establish bases in, as a matter of urgency. Places to focus on include other Asian countries, Europe (where any Brexit angst will soon fade) and West Africa.

This last category is especially promising. Nigeria has the largest population in Africa and an expanding middle class; and Ghana has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Both have a history and culture of enthusiasm for UK independent education, and indeed enthusiasm for it in the round – not just as an exam factory. The establishment of subsidiaries of independent schools in these countries – rather than China – should now be a priority, and not just for the ultra-well-off, but into the growing middle-class markets there too. Indeed, low-cost education for the poor, as pioneered by Professor James Tooley, could also feature as part of these plans.

As the sector emerges from the pandemic, we should be looking at increased state / independent school partnerships. Independent education can benefit wider society even more than it already does with greater government support. This could come in the form of co-sponsored bursaries, some modern version of assisted places or even a Dutch or Australian-style voucher scheme.

After comparing the performance of independent and state schools during the Covid crisis, many parents are now seriously looking at a private education for the children. With flexibility and an entrepreneurial approach, the future is bright for British independent schools, at home and throughout the world. They are a national asset which should be supported and encouraged.

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Andrew Lewer MBE MP is the Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Independent Education.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.