Education for the elites in ASEAN

Photo: Linjunxian /CC BY-SA 4.0

Private schools have boomed across Asia, but they are creating an elitist, two-tier education system which fails and marginalises children from lower income families.

by Oliver Ward

“Whichever school you go to, whichever class or principle you have, you will get a good education.” This was the promise of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the National Rally Day in 2013. He may have promised a “good” education, but he stopped short of promising an equal education.

The business of private education in Asia is creating an elitist, two-tiered education system. Many families are making immense financial sacrifices to get their children into private schools. Poorer communities are facing marginalisation in a school system which is becoming more and more reliant on the private sector.

Education is a necessary part of national development

The Southeast Asian region spends approximately 3.7% of GDP on education, considerably lower than developed nations like the US and the UK who spend 5.6% and 6.3% respectively. Private investment has stepped in to fill this spending gap. From 2004 to 2013 private equity firms invested US$37.1 million in Southeast Asia’s education sector.

The market for international schools has exploded across Southeast Asia. Parents are looking to foreign curriculums and private schooling to deliver more opportunities and higher educational standards. In Malaysia, 10.7 international schools are opening every year. Thailand now has 172 international curriculum schools, up from less than 12 around a decade ago. Malaysia has 142 and Singapore around 63.

China doubled its number of private schools between 2010 and 2015. China is now home to 567 international schools, the second most in any country on the planet, behind the UAE. Analysts expect this figure to increase by another 1,000 in the coming years.

In Beijing alone, there were over 104 international Chinese private schools in 2016, up from just 46 in 2011. Felicelli, a teacher in Beijing, said,“we have experienced double-digit growth over the last few years.”

Relying on private investment creates an elitist education system

Public education accounts for most of the enrolments in Southeast Asia, but it is the private sector which accounts for a whopping 79% of the market share. Excellence and opportunity are sold as commodities, with a hefty price-tag, forcing families to make tough decisions about the future of their children’s education.

There have been stories of families selling apartments to raise funds for their children’s education. In one extreme case, a father, disabled by a stroke, committed suicide on hearing that his son was offered a place in a private medical school. He was concerned that the family would be unable to afford the fees if they had to continue paying for his medicine.

In China, 60 million children attending rural schools are being left behind. There is a widening education gap where only urban families have access to good teaching and adequate school equipment. This has opened the door to corruption. Access to the top schools in Beijing, is usually only granted once a “voluntary donation” has been made to the school. These donations can reach US$130,000, ensuring only the wealthiest families access the best schools.

Creating a level playing field which promotes progressive education and excellence, without excluding lower-income families is essential to avoid the marginalisation of poorer communities. In the UK, grammar schools offer a solution, public funded institutes with entrance exams, which take the brightest students and offer a free education to a supposedly higher standard. In the UK, only 7% of children are privately educated. This is significantly lower than ASEAN nations. This system provides a model which allows lower-income families with particularly gifted children, access to higher educational opportunities without the crippling price-tags.

While this still has not created a completed socially fluid society, the effects are showing in some industries. The proportion of FTSE 100 chiefs who come from a privately educated background is falling. 70% of FTSE 100 bosses were privately educated in the 1980s, compared to just 34% in 2016. Similarly, in journalism 80% of leading editors today went to private schools, compared to 90% from the 1980s. This trend does not occur in law and politics, where private alumni dominate the fields, but it is a start on the road to educational equality.

ASEAN 2014 school enrollment (%)

Are they really worth the cost?

With steep tuition fees of around RMB200,000 (US$32,240) a year, the cost of sending a child to private school from grades 1 to 12 in Beijing is over RMB2 million (US$322,400). But is it worth the expenditure? Do private schools guarantee a better education with more opportunities for higher education?

The international private schools expose students to much more English. This is especially important in places like Malaysia, where the national syllabus for public schooling has moved from an English medium to Malay. The class sizes are also undoubtedly smaller. Private schools usually have up to 20 students to one teacher.

The international curriculum is also a huge draw, to increase the chances of the student being accepted in overseas colleges. Grace Shi, a consultant at ISC Research attributes this growth to the fact the schools “are meeting a demand that is increasing among local Chinese families for a Western Education and qualifications.” She adds, “demand from wealthy upper-middle-class Chinese families in Beijing is soaring.”

Local families are looking for a personalised curriculum and want to improve the chances of their child being offered a place at a good overseas university in the UK, US or Australia. Parents are becoming more discerning over the education their children are getting, making international schools more competitive.

Do private school graduates really earn more?

For all the advantages of a private education, a recent survey in Singapore found that private school graduates find it harder to get hired and command lower starting salaries. The survey found that only 58% of recent graduates from private schools with no prior working experience were able to find full-time jobs within six months. The median starting salary of these was S$2,700 a month (US$1,925). From public schools, 83% found full-time work within six months, with a median gross monthly salary of S$3,200 (US$2,285)

Stuart Walker, the Principal of Garden International School in Kuala Lumpur, offered an explanation from his experiences working with the Asia Pacific Forum. “When they were recruiting, they did not worry about the university the applicant went to.” “Instead the focus was drawn to their ability to solve problems, through effective communication, and working in teams are also critical.”

Private schools offer an opportunity for the rich to network

Yap Sin Mey, a journalist and product of the Chinese national schooling system gave her impression of Malaysian students educated in private schools. “There are obvious differences between the students educated in public and private schools. The latter displays better presence and self-confidence in a social setting”, she explained.

The “social setting” private schools offer is a major allure of private education. Private schools maintain a strong emphasis on community. Having a rich alumnus of former students on hand to offer networking opportunities to those fortunate enough to attend private school is a major draw and it is for this reason that middle and low-income families are driving themselves into debt to pay for a private education.

Grabbing the nettle and increasing government spending on education may be the only way to close the growing chasm between rich and poor communities. Intelligent spending on grammar schools which target lower- income communities and offer a high standard of state funded education could provide the answer. Governments of ASEAN face an ultimatum, spend more on education, or create a generation of marginalised, forgotten children failed and left behind by a two-tier education system.