Eastward ho!

Malvern College’s sister campus in China has become a bustling, successful international project. Ted Underwood pays a visit

Have you ever been to China? Take it from me if you haven’t, it’s big. A train ride from Hong Kong in the south to Mongolia in the north will take you weeks without even putting a foot onto a station platform. You would pass through paddy fields, past mighty dams and monasteries which lean precariously off the side of mountains, testaments to China’s eternal quest to tame its own landscape. This quest started with the Xia emperors diverting the Yellow River to avoid flooding and, rather unromantically, reaches its current incarnation in the vast industrial cities which squat across China’s landscape. You’ll pass through some of these cities for sure and I can also promise you that, unless you’re an ardent Sinophile, you and no one you know will have ever heard of half of them.

Qingdao is one such city. It’s a bustling industrial metropolis in north east China of some 8.7 million inhabitants which merrily churns out the raw materials and hard goods which have formed the backbone of China’s economic boom of the last twenty years. Globally, it has some recognition for its brewing industry and within Shandong province it enjoys the reputation of a not unpleasant seaside resort. Think Burton-On-Trent-On-Sea.

Let’s get off at this stop, shall we? Stretch our legs a little and see if we can find something of interest in Qingdao. Street after street reveals little to wonder at and we walk on until, like a mirage, we come across something we really didn’t expect to see here. We come across a fully operational English independent school. We come across Malvern College Qingdao, rising from the ground like some modernist interpretation of Florence. To be honest, it’s really quite tasteful.

And yet, as a concept, it is hardly remarkable. Since Harrow set sail for the East in 1997 and landed in Bangkok, a number of independent schools have opened up across Asia and, more recently, the Middle East. The most enthusiastic of these has been Dulwich College with outposts across China and, more recently, South Korea and Singapore. Only Eton remains a notable absence from the party, its ambitions remaining firmly concentrated within the boundaries of Windsor (and Westminster, of course). Various reasons are given for setting up shop abroad but the most common is the rather nebulous concept of “promoting the (your choice of school plus the suffix -ian) way”. The cynical amongst us would argue that the way in which our plucky adventurers are headed is most probably paved with gold.

And why not? Income generation is a reality schools must subscribe to or slowly fade away; our towns and countryside are strewn with buildings and road names referring to now defunct institutions which bear ghostly testament to that fact. As I have discussed previously between these pages, international students have saved many a boarding school from hitting the wall and closing the gates for good. Whilst seeking a British education in the UK is within the financial reach of a few, there is a burgeoning middle class abroad who aspire to a UK education but lack the resources to send their children abroad. It is these markets which, to the canny, are almost more tempting than the traditional foreign market. With the international outposts owned and operated by domestic companies who pay out a share of the fees to the host school, the potential for seemingly limitless profit whilst maintaining the integrity of the mother ship is an attractive prospect. The naïve and greedy might jump at what they perceive to be money for nothing, but the road is long and hard.

Malvern College Qingdao, or MCQ to its friends, is the collective brainchild of headmaster Antony Clark, commercial director Allan Walker and the college’s Chinese partners, Babylon Education. Seeing it up close and witnessing the 200-odd students bustling to class down immaculately polished corridors, it is amazing to think that this all only kicked off in late 2011.

Malvern College had been looking for an international project for some time but, keen to avoid the mistakes of others or move into areas where the market was already saturated, they took their time. It was at the end of 2011 that they were approached by Babylon Education, a Chinese company intent on replicating their prestigious brand in China. Representatives from Malvern flew out to Qingdao in early 2012 and MCQ flung open its doors to its first 32 students the following September in their temporary location in a former five-star hotel. In April 2013 they moved into a stunning 50-acre campus and have since grown to a student body of more than 180 students.

Whilst such enterprises abroad can be beleaguered by red tape and endless rounds of government scrutiny, it is remarkable how quickly MCQ was established and a testament to the preparation and dedication of the team behind it. Speed has not, however, been any impediment to quality, which Malvern College takes very seriously. An annual ISI-style inspection involving members of the college’s senior management team takes place once a year as well as up to three additional visits a year from Clark and Walker, who are in constant communication with MCQ, assisting with the development of the school wherever they can. On average, Malvern is in contact with its sister school five or six times per week on a variety of issues, all of which require careful consideration and detailed responses, and whilst it looks forward to the possibility of further franchise opportunities, there is a concern about knowing when enough will be enough and the risk of overstretching itself.

For my own part, as someone who paddles in the often murky waters of the international market, if quality can be guaranteed and even raised then, there is a great deal on offer here for everyone. By opening satellite campuses abroad, the British campus can enjoy a myriad of the “soft” benefits associated with internationalisation, and not just a healthier bank balance. School exchanges, collaborative learning projects and a collegiate approach to teacher training are just some of the bonuses associated with a sister campus anywhere in the world. For the students and their families, a high-quality British education at an affordable price is, of course, an absolute winner. But the stakes are high and a failure can have catastrophic results, both financially and in terms of brand power. Schools embarking on these projects must ensure they do so with quality not quantity in mind and be certain that there is a market to satisfy or risk an expensive embarrassment. Is every independent school capable or desirous of an outpost in every city across the globe? Time will tell.

Author Ted Underwood has over 13 years’ experience in international education as a teacher, manager and marketer. He is now schools’ director at Oak Tree International, a student recruitment and consultancy company for independent schools W: www.oaktree-international.com/ E: underwood@oaktree-international.com T: #TS Underwood

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