The opportunities of international expansion for schools (and how to avoid the pitfalls)
The number of international schools has more than quadrupled in the past 20 years. Recent reports suggest this trend will continue with projected enrolment set to reach 7 million students by 2023.
Learning English has become synonymous with opportunity. Families worldwide enroll their children in international schools hoping to create global appeal. This presents tremendous potential for schools looking to expand abroad.
There are many factors when considering international expansion. Costs, compliance, brand value protection, ROI, partners and contingencies to name a few. But why are so many schools willing to undertake the journey of international expansion? One New York Times article put it this way:
Schools expand “to raise their profile, build international relationships, attract top talent…and gain access to a new pool of tuition-paying students.”
Let’s explore these opportunities, and give guidance on how to avoid possible pitfalls, in more detail.
Opportunities in international expansion
Earlier we mentioned that some schools expand internationally to raise their profile abroad. But what impact does this have on the origin school?
When a school enters a new market they must show they are not only trustworthy but credible. Transference of brand value and ethos is crucial in building trust with parents and pupils. Raising your profile by concentrating on what makes your school unique also helps build that credibility. This could be anything from highlighting your school’s stellar music programme, co-curricular approach, or top-notch STEAM-based curriculum.
Going International is by no means a new movement. Schools from more established markets, such as the UK and US, have been exploring the world for decades, firstly in Europe and the Middle East and increasingly across more developing regions such as Asia, Africa and South America. In order to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace, it is important for brands to understand and communicate their unique qualities effectively. Doing so heightens your appeal in the eyes of investors looking to bring a new proposition to market.
Larger applicant pool
As your school’s brand grows, so will its number of applicants. Having an international presence diversifies your overall student base, bringing new perspectives and opportunities for pupils to experience life outside of their home country, including exchange programmes and studying overseas. When a school expands internationally and gains a reputation for quality in the local market, it receives more applications, meaning it can become more selective. The more selective a school is, the more prestigious it becomes.
Prestige has many benefits for a school. It can attract and retain top talent who in turn create a better educational environment, strong ties with parents and ultimately bring more visibility for the school brand, both locally and globally. Accolades and honours help drive interest and applicants. By engaging top talent, schools also court leading universities, building a reputation for producing well-rounded pupils. This is often how feeder schools are born.
Having a strong relationship with top universities is a surefire way to guarantee interest from parents, something that most international schools currently struggle to deliver compared to their origin schools. As international schools become more established, sticking to the brand’s values and ethos to produce outstanding results, those university relationships will also become more established.
Diversification of Business Risk
The US has seen a 15% decline in US private school enrollment since 2006, with the EU not looking much better. In this climate, schools look abroad to help diversify business risk. Markets in the Middle East and Asia have seen explosive growth in that same period.
Tapping into these markets allow schools to reach new potential pupils, while preserving and developing good financial health. Also, international revenues can be used to help fund development projects and bursary programmes at the origin school, further strengthening the brand.
Foreign Investment Opportunities
Schools looking to expand overseas can take advantage of local investment opportunities. This might include the purchase of commercial real estate to build a school or house staff.
Governments have been known to incentivise foreign investment. Tax breaks or deep discounts are a couple of ways they can help sweeten investment deals.
Overseas investments can be particularly beneficial for international schools with long-term, strategic planning. Foreign investors are keen to partner with quality schools from more established markets, utilising the brand’s kudos in order to ensure strong take up in their local market. Good news is that international expansion is not only for the premium schooling sector. Investors are increasingly also looking for quality mid- and entry-level brands, to provide options across all sections of the market.
Hurdles in international expansion (and how to avoid them)
For any of us who have ever lived or traveled abroad, navigating the immigration process can be daunting.
Inconsistent immigration policies put pressure on schools that hire foreign staff. These policies dictate who you hire and where they come from, and can precipitate costly delays in the hiring process.
In some cases, visa policies may compel the school to meet a specific quota for local staff before hiring foreigners.
There might also be rules in place that oblige foreign businesses to bring in a local partner. That isn’t always a bad thing, but it might take time to find someone you trust.
Finding and qualifying the right investor
Despite the evident positives, international expansion can be a daunting prospect for schools unfamiliar with the process. Qualifying prospective investors can be a costly and time-intensive exercise.
Some schools have found that entry into the international market is made easier by partnering with a company experienced in sourcing investors for the delivery of international school projects.
Setting up an International team within your existing structure can be a costly and complex endeavour. Partnering with a company that can help navigate your international expansion end-to-end, reduces the resources required from your existing team.
An American traveling abroad might feel a sense of ‘home’ upon seeing the iconic yellow arches of McDonald’s. But many are surprised to find an almost unrecognisable menu when they go to order. Brits might crave the familiar taste of Cadbury’s chocolate, only to find it doesn’t quite measure up.
McDonald’s, like all global companies, must consider the taste, or preferences, of locals to remain competitive.
For some schools, this could be challenging, in part, because their brand is tied to their culture. The key is to cater to the local requirements, while also offering the home experience so many parents and pupils want to replicate while living as an expat.
For example, a school might focus primarily on a project-based curriculum that aims to improve problem-solving and collaborative skills in students. This school may want to market this as a unique selling point. However, local children could find this style of learning quite challenging. It could be problematic if they’re not used to working in groups. Or not used to working within a co-educational environment. Often developing markets have religious requirements that also need to be considered as part of the daily curriculum. Understanding how to integrate your culture with that of the local market is crucial to success.
It is important to understand and resolve these issues when entering a new market. Forcing staff and students to adhere to pedagogy at odds with local customs is a recipe for disaster.
Attracting and keeping qualified staff is a challenge anywhere. This can be particularly difficult when trying to get top-tier talent from abroad.
Hurdles could be anything from salary, to language and cultural differences. Potential employees might be hesitant to move their families abroad with no support system. They may also worry about financial commitments back home.
To overcome these hurdles, schools should focus on the complete wellbeing of their staff. This might be in the form of higher and more competitive salaries. Or it could be offering staff free language classes or free tuition for their children. Also, most expat teachers can expect to find a better standard of living in many international markets, from tax free earnings, to substantial benefits packages. Schools should promote these facts when recruiting staff.
Expanding internationally helps a school build brand recognition, increase student applicants, and improve financial health.
Yes, international school expansion has its challenges. Government bureaucracy may force schools to adopt more agile hiring practices while simultaneously trying to attract the most qualified employees. There is also the process of qualifying investors to consider.
Integrating the culture and preferences of their local and expat demographics will help in successfully carving out a slice of the local market. Working with the right people to assist in your process is crucial in avoiding costly and time-intensive mistakes. However, if a school can successfully navigate the hurdles of international expansion, the benefits are plentiful.