Inequality worsening with the growth of international education

Inequality worsening with the growth of international education
International schools are in huge demand across Asia, where, by 2024, it’s predicted there will be over 7,000 international schools supporting over 5.5 million students. Source: Les Anderson/Unsplash

Education is widely seen as the best solution for improving quality of life and helping those born into poverty. Access to education offers an extensive range of benefits; saving lives, fostering peace, reducing poverty, boosting economic growth and reducing child marriage. As such, the provision of quality education is a vital Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). The growth of universal education, including efforts to enrol more children in secondary education, is without doubt an objective all nations must strive towards.

Unfortunately, while access to education is on the rise, too many national education systems continue to offer substandard schooling, and this has led to affluent parents in those countries searching for alternative options that provide a better quality of education. The past 20 years have seen a phenomenal rise in international education, with thousands of institutions being established across the world. International schools are in huge demand across Asia, where, by 2024, it’s predicted there will be over 7,000 international schools supporting over 5.5 million students.

International schools, colleges and universities offer local children a standard of education which surpasses that offered by their more provincial counterparts, which are usually confined to delivering the national curriculum and measuring student progress through outdated national assessments.

In contrast, international schools are administered, monitored and inspected by international organisations, such as CIS, WASC, the International Baccalaureate Organisation and Cambridge International, all of which endeavour to ensure that regardless of where these schools are located, they meet the high standards of teaching and learning prescribed by the governing body.

It’s not just the curriculum and examinations provided by international schools that set them apart. As a result of their substantially higher tuition fees, these schools also supply superior learning facilities and highly-qualified teaching professionals who embrace modern teaching pedagogies that focus on creativity and higher-order thinking skills. These schools also often have small class sizes, giving teachers more time to support each individual student.

The benefits for children who are able to attend international schools are immense. They graduate with the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century. They hold internationally-recognised qualifications that are readily accepted by universities and employers worldwide. Less affluent children, who have no choice but to attend local schools, will have a far narrower range of options and will ultimately enter the workplace on lower salaries than their wealthier neighbours.

Across much of Asia and other areas of the developing world, the contrast between international and national school systems creates two student classes: those who earn comfortably enough to afford the former and those whose families do not. It’s a divide that has a detrimental effect on social equality, reinforcing social injustices and making it far more difficult for children from lower income families to grasp opportunities in the modern world.

There is a stark, ever-growing gap between those who can afford international education and those who cannot. Source: Shutterstock

In recent decades, inequality has increased in most regions of the world, with Asia now among the most unequal regions . Over the past two decades, Asia has seen record economic growth but this new wealth has been unevenly distributed, creating acute inequality. Three of the world’s most expensive cities are in China; a country where 40 percent of the population survives on less than US$5.50 a day.

Just last month, Credit Suisse Global’s latest report ranked Thailand as the most unequal country in the world. While Oxfam’s report, An Economy for the 99%, indicated that Vietnam’s richest man earns more in a day than the poorest person in that country earns in a decade. In China, income dispersion has risen more steeply over the last decade than in any other country.

Also in China, ‘Sea turtles’ (Chinese students who attended universities abroad) are deepening social inequalities. In 2017, 480,000 overseas students returned to China, equipped with the experience and qualifications needed to fill the country’s most rewarding employment vacancies. With China’s economy continuing to grow, demand for highly-educated graduates cannot be met by graduates from the country’s top domestic universities.

This means that affluent Chinese families will continue investing in international schools and universities, driven by a quest to enhance their children’s chances of earnining credentials that are valued by employers, and which will unlock the highest-paying professional opportunities.

International education is a boon to those who are able to access it, but it is having a detrimental impact on social mobility, equality and meritocracy. This is problematic because these ideals are central to most modern societies, and societies deemed equal and fair are far more likely to be prosperous, productive, harmonious and safe.

So what can be done to ensure international education is not a hindrance to social equality?

Improving national education systems so there’s less of a gap between the standards offered by local and international schools is the ultimate solution. Unfortunately, this will take time, and with the politicalization of education policy in many countries, it’s an ideal which may never fully be realized.

Offering scholarships and increasing opportunities for lower-income students to attend international schools is perhaps a more realistic short-term solution. Many international schools already offer scholarships to gifted students, but with the right policies, more international schools could be encouraged to offer scholarships to lower income students who live in the vicinity.

Having international schools partner with local schools to share educational insights, teaching methods and modern pedagogies through joint professional development workshops is another way international educators can improve local education standards. Already, some leading institutions work with local institutions in this way and positive examples should be followed.

In the long term, it’s hoped that the socially-conscious ethos of many international schools, particularly IB schools, will encourage international school graduates to implement the changes needed for a more just society. Hopefully future generations will go into the world with the intentions of making it a better, fairer place for all.

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