International schooling - a question of budget

31/01/2020 By Piers Lee

Insights from our Singapore Parent Survey, conducted in Q4 2019

One of the largest investments expatriate parents make in Singapore is in their children, particularly through the payment of international school fees.

But even as the choice of international schools increases, parents are frustrated by rising school fees (often higher than inflation and salaries) and extra associated costs.

We have been studying the international schools market in Singapore through parent surveys since 2017.

Today, 80% of parents need to pay for school fees out of their own income, against 20% who have fees paid or partly paid by their employer.  This has risen in the last three years (77% of parents paid all fees in 2017).  Of those whose employer pays the fees, 11% expect to see a full or partial loss in this employee benefit in the future.

Western expats still receive this benefit more than others, with almost a third (32%) having their fees paid in whole or in part by their employer compared to just 17% of Asian expats.

As more have to foot the bill themselves, how have parents responded?

Joint efforts

We see more families where both parents are working. Two thirds (66%) of mothers stated in our 2018 survey that they were working, which has risen slightly to 70% today.

Accordingly, school fees are now being covered more by both parents. Today, half (51%) of all families see both parents contributing to school fees payment compared to 45% in 2018.  Fathers tend to pick up the remaining fees, but mothers are increasingly paying for fees just on their own, rising from 5% in 2019 to 11% today.

Considering budget options

Parents are also willing to reconsider their options on schooling.

While many are reluctant to compromise on their children’s education, household budget pressure and new choices for international schooling are making parents consider alternatives.

In 2018, we found 30% of parents willing to consider the new category of ‘budget international schools’. These typically provide the same international curriculums, but with more modest facilities.

In our most recent survey, 53% of parents stated that they would be more likely to consider schools with “lower than average fees”, implying that they are willing to make a trade off on schooling to save costs.

To switch or not to switch?

From our survey, 33% of parents had changed international schools while in Singapore.  While most of these changes are for reasons other than budget, parents will consider lower cost schools when they have larger families and might seek discounts for enrolling more than one child.

It can also be easier and less disruptive to switch schools when children are in their primary years, since curriculums and ranges of ECAs / facilities are less crucial at these ages.

Parents also become more aware of the range of options for schools from visiting other schools for sports events, and joining online forums where they can pick up recommendations for schools from other parents.

But other parents we spoke to wanted to minimise the level of switching of their children’s schooling.  Certainly, there are risks in switching schools, particularly if the child is happy with their current school.  Some comment that switching itself has a tangible cost, e.g. enrolment fees. There is also the risk of being relocated out of Singapore, so they look to minimise any switching while they are living here.

An eye to the future

Another finding from our survey is how parents can look for future savings in their children’s further education.

Most parents expect to send their children to universities in the Western market (led by the UK, USA, and Australia). But based on our survey, the single most popular destination market for university was actually Singapore itself.  43% of parents at international schools will consider universities in Singapore. This includes half (50%) of Asian expats, 29% of those in mixed marriages and a sixth (16%) of Western expats.

Yes, this finding may be a reflection of cost considerations (including flights and extra living costs associated with attending overseas institutions). But it also shows expatriates are choosing to settle in Singapore and rate the quality of universities here.  The consequence will be a new cohort of second generation expats entering the Singapore work force.

What’s next?

For more information on this study, and other BVA BDRC research into the international schools market, please contact Piers Lee - or complete the form below.