Over the past decade the emergence of pathway programme providers, offering programmes for international students to enrol in degree programmes at Western universities in markets such as Australia, the UK and increasingly the US, has been well documented. Against this background, we are starting to see some exciting new opportunities associated with pathway programmes for international students of a much younger, school age. What are the key drivers of this emerging market segment and how great is the opportunity?
According to the Independent Schools Council, the number of international students (with parents overseas) attending independent schools in the UK has been growing by c.5% per annum over the past five years, up from c.21,000 in 2009 to c.26,000 in 2013. A further c.11,000 international students whose parents live in the UK attend independent schools. Key ‘source’ markets have historically included Hong Kong, China, Germany, Russia, other countries within the EU and European Economic Area, Spain, other Far Eastern countries and in Africa, Nigeria. The majority of these students have been enrolled on A Level and GCSE programmes.
In keeping with trends in higher education, a number of key growth drivers have underpinned this growing market:
- An increasing number of wealthy households in developing countries and in particular, China, Russia and Nigeria
- The perceived better quality of education available at UK boarding schools, relative to options in students’ home countries
- A continuing growing recognition that English is ‘the’ global language, resulting in growing demand for an English-language based education
- An increasing need amongst many boarding schools (particularly those located outside London and the South East) to boost enrolments from new overseas markets, in response to flat or declining ‘local’ demand
These market trends have resulted in the emergence of a growing number of International Study Centres (ISCs), offering ‘preparation-for-boarding’ programmes for international students. These programmes, which last for one or two years, are typically oriented around intensive English language tuition, to ensure that international students are able to rapidly attain the level of English language required to be considered for boarding school. There are, however, other benefits. Many programmes help international students prepare for the British education system through academic courses, such as foundation IGCSE programmes. International students can also experience boarding school life to check that it is right for them, before enrolling at a mainstream boarding school.
In recent years we have seen a gradual lowering in the age of international students enrolling at ISCs, with parents eager for their child to make improvements in their English at an earlier age, thereby increasing their prospects of performing well in key examinations, such as GCSEs and A Levels. The ultimate goal of course is for the international student to secure a place at a leading university. As such, the need to attend a traditional university pathway programme is often eliminated.
Looking forward, we expect continued growth in the number of international students coming to enrol in boarding schools in the UK’s independent sector. We also expect to see growing demand for a boarding school education in other Western markets, such as the US and the emergence of more international boarding colleges such as EF Academy in New York and CATS Academy in Boston. Whilst the market for international students attending these programmes will continue to be small, relative to the much larger university pathways segment, there is no doubt that growth will remain strong, resulting in some exciting opportunities for operators and investors alike.
Mark Jeynes is a Director of Bishopstrow College, a leading independent International Study Centre offering English language and academic pathway programmes for international students aged 7-17 years, who are looking to enrol at leading boarding schools worldwide.