The Dark Side of China’s “International Divisions”
Image Credit: ongtianhua

The Dark Side of China’s “International Divisions”


There is a boom in study abroad in China, with more and more students seeking an overseas university education. Traditionally, most Chinese students prepared to undertake undergraduate degrees overseas with the help of commercial outfits offering exam prep courses for IELTS, TOEFL, the SATs and other important tests, which filled a gap left by schools.

That is now changing, with the emergence in the schools of many large Chinese cities of the so-called international division, or international department, as the most important program for preparing students for their overseas study experience. This is a somewhat revolutionary development in the Chinese education sector, yet it has hitherto gone largely unremarked.

One reason for this is that these “international divisions” are not exactly official policy. The Chinese government has yet to establish a clear position on programs to prepare students for overseas study. Schools have taken it upon themselves to respond to burgeoning demand, but because they lack the experience to set up and run the programs themselves, they have usually turned to private-sector corporations, which run the programs on campus in the name of the school. With the exception of a small number of schools that have gone it alone, most international divisions have a mixed public-private nature.

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This blended public-private model is new, and it opens up some exciting educational possibilities. Nonetheless, the model has its drawbacks. By appropriating the school brand, these new international divisions can swiftly accumulate prestige and authority – while, of course, increase enrolment – but there are abuses. The companies behind the international divisions are operating on the profit motive. Naturally, the programs need to maintain quality if they are to survive, but in many international divisions the for-profit mindset means that only a small portion of tuition fees are allocated to providing educational services and supplies.

Moreover, this public-private collaboration is currently a gray area, raising questions of accountability.  Ostensibly, the host school and the international division share responsibility for the program, but in reality responsibility gets blurred. For students and their families, the public-private relationship is often unclear, making it hard to know who is responsible for what. Schools can claim that they are just lending out their name, and are not responsible for program administration. The corporate providers meanwhile try and shift responsibility back to the school, with some in fact feeling that the association with the school gives them reduced accountability.

On-campus international divisions are still competing with the wholly commercial off-campus program providers. To differentiate themselves, many international divisions are set up to run for the same three years as traditional Chinese senior high schools, while boasting a full school experience, including a campus environment and a foreign curriculum. This is used to justify their vastly higher tuition fees – up to 50 times or more compared to the cost of traditional schooling. In Guangzhou, for instance, the on-campus international program costs around 100,000 RMB (about $16,340) annually, compared with just 2,000 RMB for a traditional high school.

To encourage parents to pay these high fees, international divisions often market themselves as the gateway to word-class universities, with excellent teaching imported from brand-name high schools overseas. The claim, in short, to offer an “international education.”

That appeals to Chinese students and their parents, many of whom recoil at the excessive orientation towards the gaokao, the Chinese national college entrance examination, at traditional Chinese schools. In practice, however, international divisions are still themselves heavily focused on getting students through examinations, in this case international tests like TOEFL and IELTS. Many students complain that as a consequence, international divisions are no different from traditional Chinese schools, stressing exercises, rote pedagogy and test prep.

Unlike the gaokao, which is once a year, international exams can usually be taken multiple times a year. That might sound like good news for those students who plan to take them, but in reality it simply makes the international divisions all the more focused on the tests.

Many Chinese students planning to study overseas use exam repetition to achieve high scores, and that strategy is commonly adopted by tutorial centers and international divisions. Multiple test-taking means more test prep, which in turns means that the obsession with exams in Chinese grows. As direct fallout, courses that are not tested receive scant attention from students and teachers, with preparation concentrated mainly on English. The end result is that education devolves into language training, something that is made clear by the language-dominated curricula. A common complaint is of students skipping classes that are not relevant to exams.

The rise of international divisions will continue and will be seen as part of the reform of Chinese education, but it is hard to be optimistic. Their emergence is driven by the mixed private-public model, but that has its own problems. The market’s needs for study-abroad programs and the profitability of international divisions are attracting a great deal of capital and host schools, but the future of “international education” in China remains uncertain at best.

Zhang Yucheng is a teacher in the international division of Guangzhou University High School, and previously worked in a private tutoring center in Shenzhen teaching the SAT. Zhang received his master’s degree in education at the University of Hong Kong and his research interests span a wide range of topics in Chinese education, especially higher and international education.

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