Can all international schools survive the virus?

Stephen Whitehead looks at key variables that will affect the ability of international schools to weather the storm of Covid-19.

Express train

Like an express train that has suddenly run out of track, the international school phenomenon has juddered to an abrupt and frightening halt. Anyone connected with this highly successful educational industry has been used to seeing the statistics, assuring us of continued global growth. However, as a direct consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic the question now is less about growth and more about survival.

As a foretaste of what we might expect across the sector, on the 8th May Hong Kong lawmakers rejected a request by four international schools for HK$1.4 billion (US$180 million) in interest-free loans to ease the financial pain they’re experiencing from the coronavirus pandemic. One suspects these four prestigious HK schools, one of which is Shrewsbury International School, represent merely the tip of a deepening global iceberg.

Sure, most every educational institution around the world has been adversely affected by the pandemic. But while governments will ensure the state sector (schools and universities) continues to survive, the same cannot be said for independently owned international schools. They are out there on their own.

Location Variable

In attempting to answer the question ‘can all international schools survive?’, the first variable to consider is location. Recognising that no country or region is immune from the economic consequences of Covid-19, what we can identify are countries which have responded most effectively to the pandemic, and the majority of those are in Asia.


Eight important variables are:

  1. Population growth (unplanned pregnancies may rise as a result of the lockdown);
  2. Technological adaptation (AI will play an increasing role in output and addressing human resource problems);
  3. The quality of health care (ability of a country to resist further Covid-19 epidemics);
  4. Reliance of an economy on Small-Medium Enterprises (more vulnerable to bankruptcy);
  5. Quality of education (adaptability of the workforce);
  6. The robustness of a country’s citizenship to handle hardship (e.g. Vietnam stands out here);
  7. The value a population puts on private education and preparedness to pay for it (e.g. China’s big plus);
  8. The willingness of a government to follow the IMF’s stimulus and liquidity recommendations.

If we focus only on the international education market, factor in the number of international schools in a given country, plus the risk factors highlighted by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, together with the above eight variables and the direct impact of Covid-19 on their economy, then what emerges is a list of ten countries where international schools are most likely to survive the Covid-19 pandemic.

  1. China
  2. South Korea
  3. Taiwan
  4. Japan
  5. UAE
  6. Vietnam
  7. India
  8. Malaysia
  9. Singapore
  10. Indonesia

Of course, this is not to suggest that any of these ten countries are simply going to carry on where they left off on January 1st 2020. They will each suffer economic hardship. The point is, as far as international education is concerned, they are more likely to bounce back quickly because they have the human, political, cultural and technological resources to do so.

The importance of China

Much hope rests with China. If that country is able to quickly emerge from the pandemic and return to something resembling ‘normal’ production, then the economic benefits will be felt immediately across the Asian region, and eventually the world. This, in turn, will act as an impetus for international schools both directly (in terms of enrolments of Chinese students) and indirectly (in terms of improved local economy).

The ownership variable

There are over 11,500 international schools globally, of which perhaps less than 1% are owned by the big players: GEMS, Nord Anglia and Cognita. An even smaller percentage are members of a Western private school franchised operation: e.g. Dulwich, Harrow, Shrewsbury, Brighton, Repton, Marlborough. Of the remainder, perhaps 5% are (part) owned by global corporations which have some presence in the international school market (e.g. New World Development, Hong Kong). Then there are the single site operations; prestigious, long-standing, possibly not-for-profit, international schools enjoying significant support and investment from local businesses, NGOs and the school community – most countries have at least one such school.

While few can claim 100% accuracy when it comes to predicting business trajectories, it seems reasonably safe to assume that the above will have the resources to ride out the depression which follows in the wake of the Covid-19 tsunami. However, the vast majority of international schools are not corporatised, they are single owner operations, perhaps one of several schools run by the same family or company. These schools enjoy varying levels of stability. To what extent such schools can survive is likely to depend on the quality of the owner’s relationship with their bank – or the health of their other businesses.

Middle-tier international schools may be winners here. Market growth was already favouring them, with newly monied but not ludicrously wealthy parents being the largest source of international school growth. Middle-tier schools may attract local nationals for whom the premium schools are now financially out of reach – so long as their fees are low and their reputation high.

Iceberg Warning!

It would be a mistake to ignore the warnings of a looming financial iceberg floating in the waters of international schooling, but at the same time there is so far little evidence to suggest the vast majority of international school parents are planning to switch back to their respective state education systems.

Certainly, the estimation is that most every parent who can afford to do so, will continue sending their children to their designated international school. The questions are, however:

  1. How many parents can now continue to afford a private education for their children?
  2. Is there sufficient latent demand in the sector to sustain the phenomenal growth of international schooling?


Author, academic and consultant, Stephen Whitehead was Senior Lecturer in Education and Sociology at Keele University, UK, from 1997 to 2015 and for 6 years Keele’s International Programme Coordinator responsible for establishing and delivering a range of postgraduate courses (MBA, MA, PGCEi and EdD) for international school teachers/managers in Asia and the Middle East.

He now lives and works as a freelance consultant in Chiang Mai. A version of this article originally appeared in the Educational Digest International. A sample chapter from Stephen’s forthcoming book, The International School Teacher’s Handbook, can be accessed here.


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Feature Image:by klimkin from Pixabay

Support Images:  by Arek Socha, Gerd AltmannMoteOo from Pixabay