The PIE News: Gavin, how is business?
Gavin: Because so much of our work is with international schools in China, we’ve been overwhelmed… international schools have been growing so quickly. We had choices: we could either do more work in the US. Or we could just go to another city in China.
Last year we gained 73 new international schools.
The PIE: So how many of those schools are brand schools and how many are independently run?
Gavin: That’s a good question. Let me show you one other statistic that I think would be the easiest way to explain that, which is the type of curriculum they are using.
The IB has been pretty consistent. So China’s IB schools tend to be expat, not all, but the vast majority are expat schools. They’re schools that are registered and only teach foreign curriculums.
China also has two other types of schools. It has the private or Chinese international school, and those have a little bit of Chinese curriculum in them, are registered differently and can accept Chinese nationals.
A handful are IB schools. The IB curriculum for Chinese nationals is significantly harder, so they don’t necessarily have as many of those. Now there’s a ton of A-Levels and lots of AP which emerged when college boards came and promoted IB heavily in China, which was enormously successful.
So instead they do A-Level or AP. And that I think had a lot to do with why AP and A-Level are so successful; they’re a little bit less intensive. This is sort of the backdrop of whats happening now.
The PIE: How did you manage to be in the right place at the right time?
Gavin: I had an amazing co-founder whose name is Chloe. In a different life, she was actually helping an organisation that built and operated these types of, first centres, and then centres for international departments.
She’s Chinese. In that world, we decided we don’t want to build the centres, we don’t want to be the organisation that is running because you have to go to a second or third tier city and you have to live there for four or five years. It’s building a school within a school.
We decided Sunrise is going to be the organisation that helps, and it also became competitive really fast.
So myself, and my two partners, Chloe and David travelled around the country individually, to go meet with the centre directors.
The PIE: Did you distinguish between the public and the private?
Gavin: At that time, there weren’t really many of the new classification, which is the Chinese registered international schools. That’s sort of like a two/three year ago thing. Because they realised, the international department, that’s a later thing that happened, there was a little bit of public outcry, like why do these foreign organisations get to operate inside the public school campus?
“Chinese students are sensitive to rank, mainly because they’re ranked from kindergarten, it’s part of their system”
Beijing had to [say] ‘no, you have to get off the campus of these school within three years’. This has happened pretty much systematically in China, but they couldn’t do much about it until they had an alternative. The demand was still there. You can’t just kick the kids out if the demand is there. So then they created the registration status for the private international schools.
Now they created the Chinese international school and then they slowly said we’ve got a couple of years, every region is different, to go become that. Different building, different credential, different to get out and then go and operate as an independent organisation that we can monitor effectively. This transition is happening faster in Beijing and Shanghai, and slower the further you get away from first tier cities.
Most of the growth and development that I see now is private international schools. They have foreign investors, they have domestic investors.
The PIE: Did you generally always get the uptake, because there was no one else offering what you offered?
Gavin: There were other organisations that were doing it. But I don’t know that they were very international organisations. So there were, for example, local organisations that would see that we offered debate program and then they want to do it.
There would be people who would see a curriculum but I don’t think they understood… It’s hard to understand extra-curricula in the way a western person might see it, or maybe even the way an American might. We have leagues here at a high school level. We even have competitive leagues in debating.
We saw the Harvard debate invitationals [were] going to be a really big deal for Chinese students.
The PIE: So you set all these leagues up.
Gavin: Yes. And they are huge.
The PIE: How many staff do you have?
Gavin: Just under 100 staff, full-time in Beijing.
As you can imagine, when we started doing that, we started getting contacted by universities, pathway programs, recruiters, agents, and everyone. That was not our world.
Surprisingly, you would’ve thought that we would have more contact with that, but we were just too busy dealing with all kinds of crazy problems in second or third tier cities.
Setting up international education, you might have to deal with parents who have never lost at anything ever, and they are used to being able to pay to get better grades or pay to be able to make problems go away or pay to win tournaments or pay for things.
It’s ok to pay for training, ok to pay for improvement; that is the nature of education. That is very different to paying for better A-Level scores or grades that are not real. So this is sort of the transition that took a long time.
The PIE: Why do you think parents have this attitude?
Gavin: Parents are terrified, and they feel like if everyone else is paying, and I don’t, am I in trouble?
The Chinese student dilemma was partially down to that; sure you have students that pay, but it’s the fear of failure.
The PIE: How do you decide which cities to target?
We don’t go to first tier cities. The reason is that, predominantly, institutions can find their own way in Beijing and Shanghai. They are metropolises, relatively easy to navigate. Enough people speak English, you can figure your way out in Beijing and Shanghai. My general rule is, if you’ve heard of it, it’s probably not somewhere you need help with. If you’ve heard of it, you’ve sort of missed the trend.
“We all speak Mandarin and all speak English, that’s really important”
Now I try to tell [clients], Chinese students are sensitive to rank, mainly because they’re ranked from kindergarten, it’s part of their system. You are ranked instantly. I tell them to go off the beaten path, where they will be treated well, and these students are most likely to go to your institution.
The PIE: How many schools do you work with?
Gavin: 417 schools. That is explicitly the extra-curricular side now.
That’s the education side and then there’s the recruitment side where we are just a service provider for universities. We bring them to second or third tier cities, that’s probably the crux of it. Some of those trips are 10 days long, you go to six or seven cities. They will visit 14/15 schools, they will see 2,000 kids.
The PIE: Do the HEIs like working with a brand with a westerner fronting it?
Gavin: I think they like it. Keep in mind, I am one of three. David is American, Chloe is Chinese. We all speak Mandarin and all speak English, that’s really important. In fact, most of our staff do. It’s a huge part of what we do, it’s all about cross-cultural communication.
I think it makes it more comfortable because I understand that when they are contracting with a US organisation, it’s different to contracting with a Chinese organisation. We are also not an agent. We can be neutral. We don’t say agents are good and we don’t say they’re bad.
We bring you directly to international schools. If you choose to work with an agent afterwards, that’s fine, if you choose not to that is also fine. Every school is different so that works out.
The PIE: It’s an amazingly cheap and effective recruitment channel for the universities.
Gavin: That’s why they do it. The reason, I think, they do it is because it’s a particular type of institution. If you are in a top 50 ranked institution, they probably don’t need to. I mean maybe they would do it for diversity.
They don’t want all of their kids to come from Beijing and Shanghai so they maybe will start looking [elsewhere]. Most of the time it is for the people who have one or two great programs or have something that we used to talk about, points of pride. If I ask someone what they are proud of in their institution – they say they are just not special. And I’m like, I really can’t help you.
They need to [say] ‘our nursing program is excellent’ or ‘we have a direct matriculation agreement with this top national university, and you can do a 3 + 2 program’. You’ve got to have something that is marketable and engaging. It has to be a good decision for the right type of student for it to work. If it is just like everyone else, it’s harder.
“We have schools that are coming in looking for six kids that are going to fit…we have some schools that need hundreds because they are big national institutions”
The PIE: When you organise the tours, are you doing an open day, are there speeches?
Gavin: They stand up and they talk about their points of pride first. The whole point of that is not to talk about the school, it is about who should come talk to me. Interested in data science? Come talk to me. Interested in social media, analysis, and 3d imaging and whatever? Come talk to me.
It’s got to be more like that. Or it could be, well, I’m 50 minutes to Disneyland… That works too.
The PIE: How many universities are represented on each tour?
The PIE: What is the price point for the universities?
Gavin: Around $10,000.
The PIE: And they are in the country for how long?
Gavin: 10 days, where they meet 2,000+ students and 15 or 16 counsellors. It’s pretty gruelling.
The PIE: Do you have an average conversion or does it vary a lot?
Gavin: I think it varies immensely. But we also have schools that are looking for very different things. We have schools that are coming in looking for six kids that are going to fit. That’s their six Chinese kids a year. We have some schools that need hundreds because they are big national institutions. And this is a fundamental strategy coming from very high levels of the organisation. It’s a major step for them.
Also, we deal with people from all different levels of sophistication. Some have been in China for 10 years, and have a China office and have six or however many representatives. They have worked with agents forever and they understand.
As the uptake kicked in from students going younger and younger, now we even have high schools. The idea is to get them started younger so that they get to better schools.