Do Not Let the Costs of Offshore Schools Overshadow the Benefits

Exporting public education for a profit challenges the sense of Canadian values, but it is not necessarily as bad as it may first appear. There are many hidden benefits. While media coverage of an Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada-sponsored report by University of BC Prof. Hans Schuetze illuminates hidden, indirect costs of offshore schools in China, the Foundation believes the media reports do not shed light on the opportunities for policy improvement, coordination and research identified by Dr. Schuetze.

Offshore schools in China differ from conventional international schools as they service Chinese citizens rather than the children of foreign residents, are run for profit, are governed by a small board of trustees appointed by owners/investors as opposed to an elected board of experienced educators, and the objective is to facilitate admission to foreign universities rather than ease the re-integration of a Canadian child to Canadian society. Offshore schools offer both Canadian and Chinese curricula, and must fulfill the mandate of both Canadian provincial and Chinese educational priorities.

Schuetze’s research team conducted in-depth case studies of three out of 12 BCcertified (and approximately 80 Canadian-certified) offshore schools operating in China. Various staff members, Canadian principals and educators, and Chinese as well as Canadian government officials were interviewed as part of the project. From the study, Schuetze concludes that there are regulatory gaps and a need for clarification in both Canadian and Chinese public policy. He advocates the creation of a national quality standard in Canada and with it, deepened inter-provincial cooperation on standards -- which presently are effectively uncoordinated across provinces. He raises legitimate concerns about the true autonomy of Canadian educators in China, as all financial matters relating to the schools must be vetted by a Chinese management group that is ultimately controlled by investors rather than pedagogues. Schuetze notes there are wide ideological inconsistencies in the objectives of the Canadian and Chinese curricula as well.

Hidden financial costs attract the most media attention as Schuetze questions if the fees charged by BC are sufficient to cover government costs associated with curriculum development and provincial exam administration. If the issue is one of cost, however, the problem is easily remedied by determining the per-capita cost of creating and administering provincial examinations and having BC levy the appropriate fee from the offshore schools. The larger social problem rests in informing public opinion about the realities and myths of offshore schools – goals that Schuetze argues warrant greater study.

The BC-certified schools are effectively offering a product for sale, and Chinese consumers can chose between BC, US, the UK and many other foreign-affiliated institutions. BC has full autonomy over the content of the certified schools’ curriculum – as it should. If it is expected that people in China pay for the R&D of the curriculum, it also stands to reason that they would want have some say in the content of that product they are helping to fund, although Schuetze does not argue this point.

The benefits of modern Western education that offshore schools provide to China seem bountiful; however, questions of social equity emerge, as tuition costs make them inaccessible to the majority of Chinese students. These schools are intended for elites, as fees vary from US$5-7,000 a year. Chinese parents pay upwards of US$36-45,000 for their children to complete Grades 10 – 12 at the offshore schools. Providing worldclass education has important, though less obvious benefits to Canada which cannot be ignored. Hundreds of Canadian teachers are employed annually at no expense to tax payers; cultural linkages are expanded with future business leaders (the students of today); schools offer valuable international experience for BC educators -- many whom are starting their careers; offshore schools are increasingly “feeder” schools to BC universities which rely heavily on undergraduate fees; Canadian values are being taught abroad; and a small number of marketing/recruitment positions are created in BC. This aspect of globalization presents BC as a “cultural gateway” of sorts, linking China and Canada.

The globalization of education need not be misconceived as the “privatization” of a public good in Canada. In truth, offshore schools have little to no effect on the development of BC’s curriculum and do not receive any funding from the province. Any indirect costs can be recovered by charging offshore schools fees that reflect the true cost of developing and maintaining the public curriculum. However, besides the benefits already listed, globalizing education offers an excellent opportunity for mutual gain.

A 2007 study, also commissioned by APF Canada, found the level of engagement in the BC education system with Asia Pacific was systemically declining, rather than rising to meet the needs of cultural literacy. Deepening linkages with other Asia-Pacific countries like China can only help improve the quality of education being offered to Canadian students at home and may help to reverse this trend in cultural illiteracy. The new century is sure to redefine our conceptions of a “global village” full of cultural and linguistic diversity. Making space for long-term cultural linkages through education, perhaps through cooperation in common curricula content, could offer an avenue to expand the Asia-Pacific content in BC’s curricula, helping our children prepare for the Pacific century. 

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