The Standard By Samuel Chan
【The Standard】Why Asia doesn’t care about academia anymore

last year saw a new high in the number of international pupils studying at UK boarding schools, but recent observations suggest that increasing numbers of international students are school-hopping – that is, moving to a new school mid-way through their GCSEs or even while studying for A-Levels. 

Why is this happening, and what can agents and independent schools do to remedy the situation?

The UK independent school sector has undergone vast changes in the last decade. 

With a declining domestic market (due to fees having risen nearly 50 percent in the past 10 years), more and more families are opting for day, weekly or flexible boarding arrangements. 

This has driven competition between schools to recruit boarders to fierce levels, especially among schools in more remote areas. 

We only need to go as far as Cumbria to find an example of an established HMC boarding school that was recently forced to close. St Bees School, which has more than 400 years of history, shut its doors in 2015. It reopened last year after its new board of trustees formed a partnership with Shenzhen International. 

With this in mind, schools are developing big business strategies, opening satellite schools abroad, appointing commercially-minded heads and principals, allocating more budget to international travel and marketing, and so on. 

Registrars and marketing personnel have never been in such high demand. Often, however, when we need to make prompt decisions quickly, we can overlook important details.

Just over four years ago, I founded Britannia StudyLink. Today, we are one of Asia’s largest student placement agencies, sending over 600 pupils to UK boarding schools every year, operating from five offices stationed in Hong Kong, Malaysia and China.

As much as I’d like to take credit for the development of the group, our growth actually owes more to the long-standing problem of how Hong Kong-based agencies recruit to UK boarding schools.

What’s wrong with how agents recruit to UK schools? For many years, UK independent schools have been recruiting in Asia, predominantly through local agents. Previously, a lack of transparency around the provision of information enabled agents to implement transactional practices, for example by categorizing schools through tiers, and highlighting simple statistics like league table performances and international student ratios. 

Subsequently, schools have streamlined students on the basis of internal assessments, issuing recommendations based on academic merit.

Even in 2013, the year Britannia was founded, families in Hong Kong had to rely on MTR adverts for information about UK boarding schools. Gigantic Union Jacks would catch their eyes, giving agents the green light to advise them and choose a school for their children, in a manner not dissimilar to that of a commercial property agent.

The average cost of a UK boarding school place is 30,000 (HK$313,100) a year. At least in the UK, parents can find reliable information in the likes of Good Schools Guide, education columns in the papers, local village magazines, London’s Independent Schools Show, headteachers’ visits to feeder prep schools. 

Why is it, then, that in Hong Kong, we let our most valued consumer – the parent – send their children thousand of kilometers away from home to study based solely on statistics and rankings?

In the following weeks, we will go deeper about school-hopping and what agencies and schools can do about it.

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