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Blog post Part of special issue: A global goal but local challenges: Perspectives on education in the Global South

The rise of private international schools and its impact on social justice in China

Chunhua Huang, Doctoral Research Student at University of Utah

As of 2023, an estimated 6.7 million students were enrolled in about 13,600 international schools globally. Over the past decade, the global sector of international schools grew by a third, and most of the growth occurred in urban hubs in developing Asian economies. International schools in Asia can be broadly divided into two types: those that cater to pupils who come from expatriate families; and those that take in local national pupils who aspire to attend higher education in the Global North. The rise of the latter type is not only a market-driven growth but reflects government policy choices that incentivise the marketisation and corporatisation of the education sector (see Kim & Mobrand, 2019).

China stands out as a significant market for private international schools because of its economic potential and political climate. Of the global total, China accounts for nearly 8 per cent of international schools and 6 per cent of student enrolment. The sector of private international schools has attracted many foreign investors and educators. However, recently, the Chinese government has tightened the regulations of this sector. The regulations seek to strengthen the Chinese Communist Party’s control over foreign investment and implement their political ideology through education. For example, under the Amendment to the Private Education Promotion Law, private international schools providing compulsory education (primary and lower secondary education) cannot be managed by foreign-controlled enterprises and must include Communist Party representatives in their supervisory bodies. The regulations have sparked media speculations and concerns about the downfall of the Chinese private education market in the media (see for example Hawkins, 2023).

While government regulations have focused on influencing the economic and political sides of private international schools, they have not adequately addressed the more subtle societal impacts of these schools. In this blog post I highlight two areas that are contributing to broader social injustices in the Chinese school system and should receive particular attention: unfair compensation based on teachers’ nationalities and ethnicities; and disparities in accessing future opportunities.

Unfairness in teacher compensation

Whiteness and English-speaking have been normalised and legitimised in private international school policies, recruitment, curricula and teaching practices (Gardner-McTaggart, 2021). White English-speaking expatriates are favoured while non-white, non-native English-speaking teachers experience unequal working conditions. Many private international schools use a business model with a split salary system (Hammer, 2024), which is based on teacher’s ethnicity and nationality. Anglophone expatriates receive the highest salaries, while other expatriates receive lower pay, and Chinese nationals are paid the least. In 2021, expatriate teachers in China were paid 136 per cent more than Chinese teachers and enjoyed exclusive relocation, accommodation and travelling compensations. Research has shown that school owners and expatriate teachers who benefit from this unfair system are actively resistant to change while Chinese teachers feel powerless to advocate for equal pay (Hammer, 2024). This split salary system contributes to structural racism in these schools.

‘The split salary system contributes to structural racism in private international schools [but] school owners and expatriate teachers who benefit from this unfair system are actively resistant to change while Chinese teachers feel powerless to advocate for equal pay.’

Disparities in students’ access to future opportunities

Private international schools are often seen as elite, offering higher-quality education and an escape from the state school system in which students have to sit high-stakes exams. Yet, private international schools are only available to children from affluent families. While carrying out research for my Master of Science dissertation, I found that Chinese students – who experience a Westernised curriculum taught in English – acquire skills, knowledge and cultural norms that are favoured in the Western hemisphere. This education gives them an edge over other candidates in both overseas and domestic labour markets (Ball & Nikita, 2014). Interestingly, these graduates also maintained their national roots, which aided their competitiveness over graduates from state schools in the domestic market (Wright et al., 2022). In addition, local government policies and companies in China incentivise those who have studied at a university in the Global North to return to China for employment. Therefore, graduates from private international schools benefit from geographical, social and economic mobility opportunities that are largely inaccessible to those from state schools.

I fear that the expansion of private international schools in China is catalysing social injustices, which may have long-lasting effects for generations to come. The aforementioned issues and my experience of contributing to a research project led by Dr Ewan Wright at the Education University of Hong Kong have fuelled my passion to pursue a PhD and to examine the societal impacts of international schooling in China more closely.


Ball, S., & Nikita, D. (2014). The global middle class and school choice: A cosmopolitan sociology. Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft, 17(3), 81–93.

Bunnell, T. (2022). The crypto-growth of ‘international schooling’: Emergent issues and implications. Educational Review, 74(1), 39–56.

Gardner-McTaggart, A. C. (2021). Washing the world in whiteness: International schools’ policy. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 53(1), 1–20.

Hammer, L. L. (2024). The ethnic gap in teacher salaries in international schools: A question of justice. In M. Barker, R. Hansen, & L. Hammer (Eds.), Handbook of research on critical issues and global trends in international education (pp. 134–162). IGI Global.

Hawkins, A. (2023, December 31). British private schools in China under threat as new ‘patriotic’ law comes in. Guardian.

Kim, H., & Mobrand, E. (2019) Stealth marketisation: How international school policy is quietly challenging education systems in Asia. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 17(3), 310–323.

Wright, E., Ma, Y., & Auld, E. (2022). Experiments in being global: The cosmopolitan nationalism of international schooling in China. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 20(2), 236–249.

Wu, W., & Koh, A. (2023). Reining in the international: How state and society localised international schooling in China. British Journal of Educational Studies, 71(2), 149–168.