Education for sale: Government reforms allow all educational institutions to compete in global education market, says Government

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“There are few sectors of the UK economy with the capacity to grow and generate export earnings as impressive as education. Our universities, colleges, awarding organisations and schools are recognised globally for their excellence. However, there is more that we can do to take advantage of this powerful reputation, and to seize the opportunities to stay ahead in the global race.”

David Willetts, Universities and Science Minister, 29 July 2013

International students have long studied at UK universities. The Government wants more to come to UK further education colleges and schools.

The Government’s new “Industrial Strategy” for “International Education: Global Growth and Prosperity” refers to the “UK economy” but doesn’t actually apply to all of the UK. The foreword makes it clear: the strategy doesn’t commit the devolved countries - Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland - to anything. Nevertheless, the strategy is part of the GREAT Britain marketing campaign originally designed to attract visitors to the whole of Britain.

Most of the document applies to higher education. However, schools are included. Like universities, England’s independent sector attracts fee-paying foreign students – 26,000 in 2012/13. The Independent Schools Council (ISC) “believes” these numbers should rise by 3% per annum “in the near future”. Quite how quickly “the near future” will arrive is unclear but when it does the number should increase by 780 pupils in the first year, 803 the next and so on.

Small numbers – but quite a lot of money. The ISC estimates that fee income from international pupils at independent schools was £685m in 2012/13 up from £430 m in 2007/8. However, this is dwarfed by the Government’s £1billion overspend on the academies programme.

The idea that state schools should allow fee-paying* foreign pupils to attend English state schools as part of an “export” drive was described as “toxic” by a Whitehall insider. The Times reported the Department for Education (DfE) thought the suggestion was unwise when school places were in short supply. But the DfE has now welcomed the strategy.

The paper talks of the export potential of “independent schools”. These are traditionally understood to be fee-paying schools but the paper describes the UK (ie English) education sector as one that “consists of independent, autonomous institutions with the confidence and expertise to take decisions and develop strategies for themselves”. It continues:

“The Government’s reforms are reinforcing that tradition, opening the market to new providers and encouraging competition. In so doing they are strengthening all institutions’ capacity to compete internationally.”

And to dispel any doubt about the identity of these “new providers” the document says:

“…the Government has strongly encouraged the growth of academies and free schools… This has in turn seen the growth of chains of schools, with the extra resilience that a grouping can bring.”

But these academies are run by charitable trusts, aren’t they? Surely they’re not in business to sell education to those willing to pay?

The document says charities running schools “discharge their obligations willingly and diligently” but their status doesn’t lead to “rapid growth”. They are “conservative in their approach to risk” and are unwilling to contemplate “equity finance”. However, some of these have discovered “ingenious ways to combine profit-making and non profit-making arms.” Perhaps setting up a “vehicle” by which taxpayers’ money can be diverted to pay dividends to shareholders investing in firms that supply services to schools is one such ingenuity.

It appears, then, the DfE thinks including English state schools in the Government’s “Industrial Strategy” is not particularly “toxic” after all.

 

*Some comments on the thread which discussed the toxicity said the suggestion wasn’t to allow fee-paying foreign pupils into English state schools. It was to allow EU pupils access to free state education as they are entitled to do in EU member states. But the suggestion was part of an “export” strategy which implies selling things not giving them away. This understanding has been strengthened by the Government paper discussed above.

 
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