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Preparing for a Chinese Eton

 IPS 13 December 2019

Zhou Hongxia thought the King’s Scholars classroom was cold and damp and rather dark, the wooden benches carved and stained with the ink of hundreds of students that have filed through it over the centuries. (991 Words) - By Antoaneta Becker


IPS_Preparing for a Chinese Eton

 At Eton school. Photo: Antoaneta Becker/IPS.

"It feels medieval and stuck in the past," she says. "I'm sure children that are not used to it will suffer at first. But if English children who studied here achieved so much then Chinese children can too."

Zhou is unaware that David Cameron is the 19th British prime minister to have studied at Eton College near Windsor. And she has not heard of George Orwell whose damning portrayal of totalitarian societies, the novel '1984', is banned in communist China. But on the wall of photographs of prominent Eton students she recognises the photos of Prince William, second heir to the throne, and his brother Prince Harry.

"It will take a while before we can have such a famous public school like Eton in China," she sighs.

Zhou - a wealthy businesswoman from central China, is on a mission. Not only does she want to send her boys to study at UK's most prestigious college, she is eager to emulate Eton's eminence and success in China. She and her team of wealthy successful businesswomen are now on a trip across Europe searching for the best of education practices that the old continent can offer to guide them.

The Chinese government has admitted it had not enough funds to finance quality pre-school education for Chinese children, and thrown the once tightly controlled education market open to individuals.

In a speech made this fall premier Wen Jiabao said China needed to solicit the help of the public to ensure its young children receive an adequate early years education. He also acknowledged that China's higher education system was not producing the creative and management talent necessary for China to sustain its economic expansion and rapid growth.

Zhou and her friends did not waste a moment. Since the first signals of market opening came in June, the four women, all heading companies in advertising, culture promotion and sports goods, have pulled funds together and decided to launch elite private kindergartens to cater to China's increasingly affluent middle class.

The women's initial motive was to ensure that their children receive the preparatory education they think is needed for them to continue in esteemed schools like Eton and Dulwich College.

Wealthy enough to afford paying the fines the Chinese government imposes for violation of the one-child policy, all four women have three and four children each, in need of education. But they worry that the standards of early childhood schooling in China are poor even for those who have plenty of money to afford the best.

"More and more Chinese students can now come up with the money to go to the best universities in the UK and America," says Wu Renling, Zhou's partner in the education venture. "If money was all that was needed then those places would be 90 percent full with Chinese students.

"Soon all those schools will need to raise their examination standards to cope with the numbers. We need to make sure that our children receive the best education from very early days and prepare them for the future."

Zhou and her team of women entrepreneurs with piles of cash and many children are not your typical Chinese middle class wife. They exemplify a new trend of burgeoning demand for the best education and the readiness and determination of Chinese private capital to fund those elite schools themselves.

For the moment it is only the pre-school education market that communist leaders have agreed to allow private capital to invest in. Considerations of ideology and the party leadership's obsession with control over the education content in primary and secondary schools make those schools out of reach for private entrepreneurs.

Underfunded, understaffed and mired in security scandals of late, Chinese kindergartens have indeed become a nightmare for many Chinese parents. But the problems continue in primary and secondary schools and in higher education. Cheating and plagiarism are rampant in Chinese universities and academic leaders complain that the national examination system sends them narrow-minded students good only at memorising.

Zhou and her partners are convinced it is only a matter of time before the government caves in and allows private businesses and individuals greater say in the ways Chinese children are schooled all the way through from kindergarten to university.

Elite UK schools like Dulwich and Harrow have franchises in several cities in China but cater exclusively to expats and foreign passport holders because Chinese government policies forbid Chinese children from attending.

"It is an unwise policy, which makes many wealthy Chinese parents pay triple the money they would have paid in China to send their children to attend those schools in the UK where you need accommodation, money for living, travelling and what not," says Wu indignantly.

Rapidly rising disposable incomes and the effect of the one-child family policy, which has made many couples fixated on acquiring the best for their offspring, can account for the global rise of Chinese students overseas.

Chinese student numbers in the UK have increased tenfold in ten years to 47,000. According to the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, China is the top country outside the EU for sending students to study in the UK. This is replicated across the Atlantic where Chinese students in U.S. universities last year outpaced the traditionally largest community of Indian students.

"I have never had it so good," says Michael Zhao who works for recruitment of Chinese students for high school and universities in the UK. "I had worked in PR and advertising before but education is the business in China that pays best."

But if Zhou and her like-minded private entrepreneurs have their way, UK elite schools will be soon losing their Chinese golden hens.

Originally published by Inter Press Service. ©

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