Massive growth of international education in Asia

Originally published at on 27th January 2015 

The rapid expansion of international schooling is a 21st century phenomenon which has had huge implications for education in Asia. During the 20th century international schools were the preserve of children of expat families, diplomats, politicians and society’s elite. Since the turn of the millennia, that has changed and the prolific growth of international schools in East Asia and Southeast Asia has been driven by demand from middle class Asian families.

 The factors driving the demand of international education vary from nation to nation but there are two underlying factors; the growing aspirations of the rising middle-classes and the perceived inadequacies of national education systems.

Asia has experienced economic growth on a monumental scale over the past decades. This development has spawned a new generation of affluent middle-classers keen to ensure their children are able to enjoy the standards of living they have become accustomed to. Much of this region, East Asia in particular, still adheres to a strong Confucian ethic which places a high value on education and hard work. Parents able to afford an education which will give their children an advantage over their peers, consider international schooling a valuable investment and important preparation for success in higher education.

Nicholas Brummitt, chairman of The International School Consultancy (ISC), the leading provider of data and market intelligence for the international schools market, explains that, “Most demand for places at international schools in Asia comes from local families who want a high quality, English-medium education for their children so that they can achieve a place at a respected English-medium university. As incomes rise, and as more English-medium international schools establish and become accessible, so such an option becomes a possibility for an increasing number of local families.”

The desirability of Western education has been further increased by international education rankings in which Asian school systems often perform poorly – with some notable exceptions which include Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Even these school systems which perform well often do so while continuing to use outdated teaching models with a heavy reliance on rote-learning. Recent research suggests that East Asia’s success in international assessments such as PISA are the result of Confucian ethics and hard work rather than the effectiveness of local school systems.

Vietnam provides a good example of this situation. Since the late 1990s the country has made a determined effort to develop its national schools system and in the 2012 reached 8th place in the PISA rankings. But despite these results, many parents lack confidence in the national school system and, finances allowing, chose to give their children an international education.

Another advantage of international schooling is the development of social capital in the form of friendships and networks with students from affluent and often influential families. These connections are made with classmates from the same school and students from other educational institutions as international schools engage in networking activities such as sporting events, academic competitions and cultural exchanges. As the students graduate from education and move into their professional lives they will have opportunities to reap rewards from these networks.

Modern international school in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The accumulation of these factors have driven the number of international schools in Southeast Asia to 827 schools teaching 309,700 students and employing 32,000 teachers. The leading countries in Southeast Asia for international schools are Indonesia (177 schools), Thailand (166 schools) and Malaysia (114 schools)


The international school sector in East Asia is even more robust with 1,009 international schools teaching 484,600 students and employing 45,000 teachers. The leading countries in East Asia are China (352 schools), Japan (224 schools) and Hong Kong (175 schools).

Demand from affluent families across the region is driving the growth of international schools but government policy is proving to be a powerful variable strongly influencing the development of this sector. While some governments are clearly welcoming and encouraging the growth of international schools, others appear suspicious and keen to control and limit the influence of international schooling.

Indonesia has the largest international school sector in Southeast Asia with 177 international schools. The government has allowed international schools to develop across the county and has allowed Indonesian students to attend these schools. These policies have enabled international education in Indonesia to continue growing at a steady pace and many believe this will secure Indonesia the title of international education hub for Southeast Asia.

Thailand has long held ambitions of becoming the ASEAN international education hub and successive governments have made efforts to promote this. Thailand also has the 2nd largest number of international schools in ASEAN (166 schools) some of which have been open for over 50 years. However, educational policies in Thailand do suffer from being politicised and subject to frequent reviews, changes and policy u-turns. Thailand’s current leaders have been using education policy to heavily promote nationalism and traditional Thai values, but so far have refrained from interfering with education in international schools.

Thailand could perhaps take a lesson from neighbouring Malaysia which has made successful attempts to depoliticise education. The Malaysian Education Ministry developed the Malaysia Education Blueprint (2013 – 2025), a 12-year plan to improve the country’s education system. Early signs suggest that efforts to improve student attainment are working.

The stability afforded by Malaysia’s 12-year Education Blueprint will make the country an attractive prospect for educators and institutions looking to engage in Asia’s booming international education sector.

While most governments recognize the quality and advantages of international school systems, nationalist factions within these governments often perceive international education as promoting Western values at the expense of their own nation’s culture, customs and values. Governments with strong nationalist factions can be inclined to control and limit the spread of Western education.

Unsurprisingly, China retains tight control over the education available to Chinese nationals. China has 352 international schools, the majority of which are foreign owned and cater to the needs of the expat population. Chinese nationals are forbidden from attending foreign-owned schools. However China is waking up to the benefits of modern education and has begun allowing international programmes to be run in Chinese-owned schools. This trend is likely to continue and is an area which is expected to experience massive growth.

SISB Singapore Intenational Chiangmai School students in Chiang Mai Northern Thailand on World Reading Day library activty IB school IBPYP

Singapore also limits the opportunities for its residents to attend international schools, with only a handful of these schools licensed to accept Singaporean nationals. While this factor limits the growth of international schooling in the city state it has no detrimental effect upon academic standards in the country. The Singaporean school system has proved to be extremely successful and in 2014 took third spot in the education world rankings.

Furthermore, the Singaporean school system is built upon principles of international education; English is the language of instruction, bilingualism is promoted and secondary school students take internationally recognized examinations; O Levels, A Levels and IB Diploma. Singapore International Schools are becoming increasingly popular and successful in other countries across Asia.

Despite the controls and limitations placed upon international education by some Asian governments it is predicted that international schooling will continue to grow rapidly over the coming decade. “By 2024, Asia is forecast to have well over 7,000 international schools and over 5.5 million students,” said Mr. Brummitt.

As demand continues, schools developers are expected to continue expanding their institutions and opening new schools to meet the growing demand. But while new school buildings are easily erected, there is one essential ingredient that is considerably more difficult to produce – quality educators to fill these schools.

Mr. Brummitt explains: ‘The greatest challenge will be the recruitment of top quality teachers. Competition between international schools for the best teachers and leaders is already high and this invariably dictates school fees. Premium international schools charge high fees because they have to offer better salary and benefits packages than other schools in order to recruit and retain the right teachers.”

Salaries and benefits are set to play a huge role in attracting educators to international schools. Another important factor which will affect schools’ abilities to attract teachers is the school’s location and the livability of the area. Schools located in Asia’s polluted industrial cities are going to have greater difficulty recruiting quality educators than schools in more desirable destinations. The location of international schools is going to play an increasingly important role in their ability to provide quality education.

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