Rising foreign influx into international schools

EducationWorld March 06 | EducationWorld

Even as the annual inflow of foreign students into the country’s crumbling institutions of higher education has declined, a quiet revolution is transforming India into an international hub of high quality english medium secondary education. Summiya Yasmeen investigates

Following the liberalisation and deregulation of the Indian economy since 1991, a quiet revolution is transforming india into an international hub of high quality English medium secondary school education. paradoxically, even as the annual inflow of foreign students into the country’s crumbling institutions of higher education has declined from 12,765 in 1993 to 7,745 in 2005, the number of foreign and NRI (non-resident Indian) students in India’s new genre of five-star international schools characterised by globally benchmarked infrastructure and affiliations with British, American and European examination boards, has risen commensurately.

In post-liberalisation India, students from countries as diverse as Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Germany are becoming de rigueur in the country’s estimated 70 international schools boasting state-of-the-art academic and sports facilities and residential accommodation. According to expert estimates, the aggregate enrollment of foreign students in India’s traditional and nexgen international schools is over 10,000 currently — and rising.

Landed with high capital costs (Rs.30-100 crore) and distant break-even horizons, promoter-managers of India’s new international schools — usually businessmen transformed into educationists or edupreneurs driven by a combination of philanthropy and enterprise — have exhibited enviable marketing strategies. Through quiet but sustained participation in education road shows abroad particularly in Thailand, Korea and the Middle East, they have marketed India’s competitively priced five-star schools very effectively. For instance in 2003-04 the state-of-the-art Indus International School, Bangalore (estb.2002), affiliated with the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO), Geneva, made eight promotional tours of Middle East countries, from which it has 15 students enrolled currently.

“India’s new-style international schools should be given full credit for establishing India as a hub of world class secondary school education in record time. Globally benchmarked and affiliated with highly respected examination boards such as IBO, Geneva and CIE, UK, they offer excellent residential and sports facilities and employ highly qualified and well-trained teachers. All this, plus year round sunshine is offered to foreign students at a fraction of the price of upscale boarding schools in the West. These five-star school managements have big marketing budgets and excellent marketing skills which are regularly showcased in education fairs in South-east Asian and Middle East countries. As a consequence India is becoming a favoured education destination for school education and we receive regular inquiries from parents in these countries about school options here,” says Siddharth Jain, the Delhi-based marketing director of Global Events and Expositions (estb. 2003), which has thus far conducted 31 education exhibitions across India.

In November this year Global Events plans to stage an international education fair which will tour Thailand, Mauritius, Dubai and Sri Lanka showcasing a “large number” of post-liberalisation India’s new genre, globally benchmarked international schools.

Unsurprisingly, of the estimated 10,000 foreign students in India’s secondary schools, the largest concentration is in Bangalore (pop. 7 million) — the information technology hub of India. Despite its crumbling infrastructure, the garden city boasts over a dozen western standard international schools (The International School, Bangalore, Jain International Residential School, Indus International School, Bangalore International School, etc), of post millennium vintage. With enrollments varying between 300-600, they boast foreign student contingents of 25-30 percent. Their sprawling playing fields and sports facilities, wired classrooms, highly-qualified faculty, five-star residential accommodation and cuisine, expatriate headmasters and affiliations with the best national and international examination boards coupled with Bangalore’s temperate climate, IT, biotech and knowledge capital tag, have made them hot attractions for a growing number of anxious, upwardly mobile parents in South and South-east Asia, the Middle East and Africa surfing the worldwide web for competitively priced internationally acceptable English medium education for their children. 

A case in point is Bangalore’s high-profile Indus International School (IIS) promoted in 2002 at an estimated cost of Rs.30 crore. IIS is the only school in the country (apart from the American School in Mumbai) and among a handful in Asia, to offer the primary, middle years and Plus Two curriculums of the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate Organis-ation (IBO). It has a total enrollment of 557 students, of whom 195 are from abroad — Thailand, South Korea, USA, Philippines, Middle East and Ethiopia. Offering as it does, the opportunity to acquire a primary-Plus Two education validated by the highly-respected IBO at an internationally competitive price (Rs.3.65 lakh per year), it’s a big draw among foreign students who are assured of smooth entry into the best British, American, Australian and Canadian universities after leaving school.

“Our IB curriculum provides a holistic education, encompassing academics, co-curricular activities, sports education and life-skills learning. At IIS we have spared no cost to ensure that the best school education is provided to our students. Forty of our 70 teachers have been trained by IBO Geneva and our focus on building leadership and entrepreneurial skills in children is our biggest selling point to offshore and Indian parents. It doesn’t take them time to appreciate this carefully conceptualised school can provide the education to create 21st century leaders,” says Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Arjun Ray, who following a 38 year distinguished career in the Indian Army assumed charge of IIS in 2002.

Indeed the bouquet of internationally reputed examination board affiliations — the International Baccalaureate, Cambridge University’s International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), the American High School Diploma and the US College Board’s Advanced Placement International Diploma — they offer is the USP (unique selling proposition) of India’s new breed of international schools and distinguishes them from the subcontinent’s traditional public schools (Doon, Mayo, Bishop Cotton etc) which tend to be affiliated with either the Delhi-based Council for Indian School Certifi-cate Examinations (CISCE) or the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE).

True to their description, most international schools offer several curriculum options to students. For instance despite its relatively modest tuition fees (Rs.48,400-84,600), the Bangalore International School (estb.1969) which has an enrollment of 265 students, offers IBO’s Plus Two diploma, Cambridge University’s ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, and the Advanced Placement diploma. “In BIS, our students have the option to choose curriculums of three of the world’s most reputable exam boards. Moreover we offer three foreign languages — German, French and Spanish — learning opportunities to our 80 foreign and 185 domestic students. BIS is also a member of the Near East South Asian Schools Association and the European Council of International Schools,” says Anu Monga, principal of BIS and incumbent chairperson of the Association of International Schools, an organisation constituted by the managements of 16 of India’s top bracket international schools, earlier this year.

The globally acknowledged academic curriculums they offer apart, these nexgen international schools are a far cry from traditional boarding schools infamous for dingy dorms, cold showers, brutal ragging and unpalatable food. Blue-printed by page 3 architects and lavishly financed, these shiny new capital-intensive schools offer unprecedented academic, residential, and extra-curricular facilities making it easy for foreign parents to provide high quality English medium boarding school education to their children at a fraction of the price of private education in their own countries.

For instance the G.D. Goenka World School scenically sited in the picturesque foothills of the Aravalli Hills in Gurgaon, offers separate air-conditioned hostels for boys and girls, equipped with spacious suites for units of four students, attached bathrooms, and common rooms with individual fully-wired work stations, plasma cable TV and edutainment systems with controlled digital channels, telephone, e-mail and video conferencing links — making it painless and easy for students to keep in touch with their families. Moreover it offers a 17 acre, five-hole trainer golf course, ergonomically designed furniture, “lux levels” of light in classrooms, earthquake resistant buildings with intelligent systems, controlled central air conditioning with fresh air intake, fire safety systems, access control, CCTV surveillance, background music, and 100 percent power backup.

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Student voices

I am the first student from Pakistan to study in an international school in India. My parents found out about Pathways on the internet and after visiting the school I decided to enroll here. Getting a student visa was a big problem, maybe because I am from Pakistan. But now that I am here, I am enjoying it – Mohammad ali, class IX, Pathways World School, Delhi

The quality of school education in India is equal to any European country. BIS teachers have done a great job for me as I came from a different education system — I couldn’t speak or write English. Now I am fluent in English – Mohammed hemmati, Iranian class X student at Bangalore International School

At Pathways one begins to understand what is international education. It’s about understanding and accepting the culture and traditions of other people. International schools in India offer world-class education and ensure that students experience Indian tradition and culture – Min-hee lee, Korean class IX student of Pathways World School

I like to study in India because there are many seasons here, whereas in Malaysia the weather is always hot and humid. My school offers good facilities — the classrooms are bright, the Smart boards are very useful, sports is fun with aerobics and gymnastics and horse riding – Trijah, class V Malaysian student of Lotus Valley International School, Delhi

In India the environment is much greener with many different trees. I like the cows wandering on the streets in India. But the school is very clean and teachers very patient even though I can’t speak English properly – Meung hwa bang, class III Korean student of Lotus Valley International School

My mother sent me here to learn Indian culture. Plus in Virginia (USA) all the Indians we knew were very smart and they had all studied in schools in India. So my mom figured that school education here was really good. It is – Rihab, an Ethiopia-born class X student of Indus International School, Bangalore

Likewise to cater to the needs of upwardly mobile double income parents within India’s fast expanding middle class who want the best education encompassing extra-curricular and sports training for their children, the meticulously engineered CBSE-affiliated Jain International Residential School, Bangalore, built at a cost of Rs.72 crore, offers almost every sports and games facility — cricket, hockey, football fields, six tennis courts, a roller-skating rink, horse riding and compulsory micro-flight flying lessons. These superior sports facilities, complemented with traditional Indian culture — yoga and meditation — are a big draw with NRI parents. Comments Chenraj Jain, chairman of the Jain Group of Institutions which runs the 748-strong Jain International Residential School which has 120 overseas students on its five-star campus in Bangalore: “The biggest attraction of JIRS for foreign students is our focus on providing contemporary education with Indian culture and values. The food served on campus is pure vegetarian; meditation and Vedic chanting are an integral part of a student’s daily routine and we celebrate all Indian festivals on campus.”

Yet perhaps the most attractive appeal of India’s new genre international schools is the high-quality English medium education they offer — a historical advantage the nation’s purblind politicians, regional language chauvinists and supra-nationalists seem hellbent on nullifying.

India’s historic English language advantage and estimated 200 million English-speaking population (English is also the language of government, courts and business nationwide) is a major attraction for students from countries with non-English traditions. Private schools, which have got around the machinations of vernacular language chauvinists by affiliating themselves with international exam boards or the pan-India CISCE and CBSE, excel in providing English language proficiency. In this connection it’s also worth noting that India is perhaps the only non-white country which doesn’t import English language teachers. Indeed, it exports English language teachers to third countries.

“For foreign students — particularly from South-east Asia and the Middle East — the biggest draw of international schools is the world-class English medium school education they offer. In Pathways we have invested heavily in designing a unique English language learning curriculum for foreign students. Special English reading and writing classes have been customised and English as an additional language course is also available to foreign students. The faculty in the English language department has been specially trained to expedite English language learning,” says Prabhat Jain, director of Pathways World School, an IB and IGCSE affiliated school spread across 30 acres in Delhi with a student enrollment of 550, of whom 110 are from 24 countries around the world.

Yet if suddenly out of the blue, India’s secondary education sector has emerged as a high-potential foreign exchange earner (without any help from government), the competitive prices of India’s 70 plus international schools is a tipping factor. Although domestic Left intellectuals and fellow-travelling academics have few good words to say about them, the plain truth is that they offer globally competitive, upmarket secondary education in temperate climatic zones, at rock-bottom prices.

According to Dr. K.P. Gopalkrishna promoter chairman of the state-of-the-art The International School, Bangalore which hosts 244 foreign students from 16 countries, an IB/ IGCSE education at Winchester College, UK is priced at £22,000 (Rs.17.6 lakh) per year against a mere £6,250 (Rs.5 lakh) in TISB. “India’s globally benchmarked international schools offer comparable academic programmes and superior extra-curricular, sports and boarding facilities in salubrious climates at one-third the price of private schools in the West. They are a bargain for foreign, especially NRI, parents,” says Gopalkrishna, also promoter chairman of five National Public Schools in Bangalore and Chennai.

Yet to be fair, although the new international schools have put India on the map as a high quality secondary education provider, in a relatively low-profile style India’s traditional British-inspired boarding schools have always been attracting students from South Asia, particularly Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. The country’s 79 independent schools affiliated with the Public Schools Conference, which mercifully escaped the attention of post-independence India’s education bureaucrats, have quietly acquired an international reputation for excellent quality school education. The Doon School, Dehra Dun; Mayo College, Ajmer; Bishop Cotton Boys School, Bangalore and St. Paul’s School, Darjeeling, among others still attract a steady flow of overseas students.

“We continue to draw students from Bangladesh, Nepal and other neighbouring countries because of the powerful Doon brand and word-of-mouth publicity. We don’t believe in aggressive marketing to trawl for foreign students. The new international schools do so because they need the big Rs.4-5 lakh per year money. The IB is their only attraction and of course they woo parents with their five-star facilities. We too will have a change of clientele if we open our doors to Plus Two students and offer the IB diploma,” says Philip M. Burret, deputy headmaster of the 70-year-old Doon School.

Adds Robindra Subba, director of Himali Boarding School, Darjeeling (estb.1979) which has 150 foreign students from more than five countries on its rolls: “Foreign students in Indian schools are not a new phenomenon. Boarding schools in Darjeeling district, which is a traditional destination for quality school education, have been attracting students from Thailand, Nepal, Burma and Bhutan for the past 125 years. Because of geographic proximity and its reputation as a centre for learning, the royal families of Bhutan and Nepal have traditionally sent their children to Darjeeling. In Himali, which is a 27-year-old school we have more than 70 students from Thailand, 20 from Bhutan and 60 from Nepal.”

Yet at bottom, the success of traditional boarding and/ or new age international schools is attributable to their thus far having been free of the heavy hand of government. This is in direct contrast to the fate of India’s tertiary education sector dumbed down by constant government interference in tuition fees, admission processes, faculty appointments and curriculum design. Little wonder that according to a recent study by the Association of Indian Universities, the number of foreign students in India’s 315 universities and 15,600 colleges has shrunk from 12,765 in 1992-93 to 7,745 in 2003-04.

But the hitherto hands-off policy of the Union and state governments vis-a-vis private secondary schools is under review. The Right to Education Bill 2005, expected to be tabled in the current budget session of Parliament, requires all private schools to provide free education to poor children from their neighbourhoods to the extent of 25 percent of their primary enrollment. Moreover ominously, the 104th Constitution Amendment Bill 2005 requires all non-minority private education institutions (presumably including schools) to provide reservations for scheduled castes, tribes and other backward castes as state governments may prescribe.

Promoters and principals of traditional and newgen international schools fear this constitutional amendment will prompt state governments to impose the reservations-quota regime upon them, and open the floodgates for government interference with admiss-ions, fees and curriculums. International schools have already constituted the Association of International Schools (AIS) to take a united stand against the government on this issue.

Capt. Raj Mohindra, the Mumbai-based chief executive of Raj Mohindra Consultants Pvt. Ltd, an education consultancy firm which currently advises more than 20 schools and education institutions across the country, warns against government interference with private schools: “In a rapidly globalising world, it’s important for the Central and state governments to encourage the inflow of foreign students into India, not just to earn foreign exchange but to showcase the fast-track new Indian economy. Reservations and provisions of the Right to Education Bill, 2005 will deter foreign students from coming to India. Instead of targeting them, government should encourage the promotion of private schools, which are helping India emerge as a new global knowledge destination,” says Mohindra.

Spirited eduprenuers, who have made huge capital investments in India’s globally competitive international schools want the government to play a facilitative rather than interventionist role. “India’s private and international schools can earn millions in foreign exchange while creating hundreds of thousands of well-paid jobs for teachers and staff in rural areas. Therefore the Central and state governments should give private schools greater freedom and dilute control regimes. Given the price-competitiveness of our international schools, government should liberally allow world-class campuses to come up. Reservations and scholarships should be voluntary rather than imposed upon us through regulations and controls,” says Prabhat Jain, promoter director of Pathways World School.

In the current climate of political populism, it is unlikely that such prudent advice will be heeded. Therefore several battles in the courts are in the offing. And unless the judiciary takes a firm stand on the right of all citizens to “establish and administer educational institutions of their choice” independently of unwarranted government interference and applies it to the secondary sector, it is more than likely that the rising inflow of foreign students into India’s new generation international schools will be reduced to a trickle.

With Srinidhi Raghavendra (Bangalore); Ronita Torcato (Mumbai) & Autar Nehru (Delhi)

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