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Students at the Harrow International School in Beijing studied with the distinctive Harrow straw hats behind them.
Students at the Harrow International School in Beijing studied with the distinctive Harrow straw hats behind them. (Jehangir S. Pocha for the Boston Globe)

Western education booms in China

Many elite schools set up campuses

BEIJING -- Winston S. Churchill might have cringed at the thought: His alma mater, the elite British school Harrow, has opened a branch in Beijing.

So far, more than 100 Western schools and universities have set up in China, and the number is expected to grow.

A team from Harvard University headed by William C. Kirby, director of the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, was in China over the summer to evaluate how the university could establish a presence in China.

"It's an idea whose time has come," said Matthew Benjamin Farthing, headmaster of the newly opened Harrow International School in Beijing. "As the world is globalizing, it's only natural for education to globalize. Parents everywhere want the best education and while they once had to send their children to places like Harrow in the UK or US, schools like Harrow are now coming here."

While some of the educational institutions, including Harvard, are looking only to set up local centers where students from their home country can come to study China's dynamic economy and evolving society, others are seeking to enroll local students in degree or diploma programs.

"In our first year, we enrolled mostly expatriate children, both from Britain and countries familiar with the value of a Harrow education, but in two years I expect things will be different," Farthing said from his staid office as scores of students in Harrow's trademark ties milled around outside.

The prestige of such traditions and the reputation of schools such as Harrow are luring Chinese students and parents to international institutions.

"I think the reputation of where you study [shapes] your own reputation," said Peng Di, 21, who really wants to study at the Johns Hopkins University's Chinese campus in eastern Nanjing city.

But it's also the promise of being prepped for life in a Westernized world and studying in an environment that emphasizes all-round development and not academics alone, as Chinese schools tend to do, that attracts locals.

Getting admission to top Chinese schools is exceedingly competitive, and the schools' orientation is heavily academic. So parents with means looking to turn their children into global citizens look favorably at schools such as Harrow, which teach in English and take a wider approach to education.

"Here we don't just study but do a lot of activities to develop our interests and prepare us for life," said Chenchi Wang, 15, a 10th-grader who left a local school to enroll at Harrow last year.

While Harrow's curriculum is based on the National Curriculum for England and Wales, its extracurricular activities include fencing, Chinese painting, yoga, a share trading club, an orchestra, jazz and blues bands, a choir, a magazine, cooking classes, and a journalism club. Earlier this year, students even staged a performance of "Carmina Burana," Carl Orff's choral and symphonic work.

The price tag for acquiring a education like this from one of the elite Western institutions in China is between $8,000 and $25,000 per year. Expatriates who send their children to these schools are mostly immune to sticker shock since it's mostly their employers that pick up the tab.

But even China's new upper middle-class isn't likely to be deterred by the bill.

Education is highly valued in China and despite the fact that the average American university or private school education costs more than a middle-class Chinese family can save in a generation, there are currently 63,000 Chinese students enrolled in universities in the United States, more than from any foreign country except India, which has 80,000 students in American schools, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education.

That number could be much higher but for the common practice of ensuring geographic balance in admissions, which ensures that Chinese students don't crowd out students from Europe, Latin America, and Africa.

With Chinese students facing steep challenges to study abroad, more and more of the foreign institutions creating campuses in China are hoping to woo locals by marketing their degrees as a Western-quality education in a Chinese setting -- at reduced prices. For example, a year at Harrow Beijing costs about $15,000, about half what it would cost in Britain.

But that approach is fraught with concerns over quality and the question of whether the experience of studying at a top institution can be replicated.

"There's more to studying at Stanford than the books and readings," said Jason Patent, director of the Stanford Program in Beijing, situated on the campus of prestigious Peking University. "That's why [our China program] is only designed to expose our US students to China, and not to offer a local degree."

Farthing acknowledges that expanding into Beijing has a "commercial aspect" and his one-year-old modernist concrete campus is trying hard to invoke the heritage of its 434-year-old cousin, whose halls in Britain's verdant Middlesex County were graced by such luminaries as the poet Lord Byron and India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Pictures of "Harrow men" in their distinctive wide-brimmed straw hats and other quintessentially British scenes, such as cricket fields, lawn tennis, and river canoeing, frame the white-washed walls. As Farthing walks the halls, he uses an avuncular but firm tone as he reprimands students slouching or talking loudly.

"What we offer is a certain ethos, a certain approach to education that is valuable," he said. "Parents can discern that, and I like to believe we are also performing a service to countries like China by raising the standards of education here."

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