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The rising cost of international school fees

Global mobility professionals will not be pleased to hear that the annual cost of international school tuition fees has increased on average by 1.9% for 2017, to a global mean of USD 15 363. With more than 80% of companies contributing to the cost of schooling assignees’ dependent children in host countries at primary and secondary level, and 60% assisting with pre-school/kindergarten, it is important to monitor related fees.

Providing a suitable education for assignees’ children can be very expensive. In many places it is essential to find an international-standard private school because local ones are of inadequate standard and may not offer bilingual education or internationally recognised qualifications. To facilitate a future move to another country or back home, the child may need to attend a school where they are working towards either an international qualification (e.g. International Baccalaureate) or fulfilling home country qualifications (e.g. a High School Diploma for US outbound assignees).

Global trends in tuition fees: the highs and lows

ECA’s recent survey of international school fees found that the most expensive country for tuition fees in 2017 is China, with an average annual cost for secondary school tuition of USD 39 581. There is intense demand for education leading to recognised international qualifications within the country – both from expatriates and Chinese nationals – which has led to such high prices.

Competition for places in international schools from local nationals is a trend emerging in many non-English speaking countries, where an English language education is often seen as the best way to improve your child’s chance of gaining a place at a top university. China also ranks highly in the OECD’s Pisa rankings, which assess countries based on the aptitude of its teenagers in a series of tests – which suggests that the high price is in part due to high-quality education.

Top ten: International secondary school tuition fee

Other countries in the top ten include the USA, UK, Switzerland and France. These countries dominate the market in internationally recognised qualifications; the International High School Diploma, International GCSE’s/A-Levels, International Baccalaureate and French Baccalaureate originated in and are administered from each of these countries respectively.

Countries such as Angola and Nigeria feature in the top ten due to the high security costs associated with providing safe international schools within their urban areas rather than the quality of the schools. There are fewer suitable schools in these countries too, despite large expat populations, which allows the small number of viable options to raise their prices even higher.

In some countries, tuition fees have increased by far more than the 1.9% global average this year. For example, average fees in Singapore – which tops the current Pisa rankings – have increased by 3.6% since last year, despite general inflation being negative over the same period. This trend of higher-than-inflation school fee increases was also seen in China (increase of 5.13% versus inflation of 1.90%), the UK (3.16% versus 2.04%) and the USA (4.6% versus 1.46%).

In most cases, the cost increases mentioned above are doubly felt as the child moves through the school system. This is because the practice of most international schools is to build in a fee increment dependent on the age of the child. For example, when a child moves from Year 6 to Year 7 they will be subject to the higher fees for that year group in addition to the annual price increase. Companies which cover the cost of education on behalf of their employees need to allow a flexible budget to account for this.

Such is the importance of an internationally recognised qualification, a small but significant proportion of multi-national organisations (13%) will pay for education and boarding costs in the home country for assignments where there are no suitable schools available in the host city. This is also an increasingly expensive option; the average cost of secondary tuition at a boarding school in the UK, for example, is GBP 30 494 (USD 38 208) for 2016/17, which is a 2.85% increase on 2015/16.

Bottom ten: International secondary school tuition fee

However, there is some relief in that school tuition fees can vary widely within one location. In China, for example, there are many viable options with tuition fees below the national average; fees in Shanghai can range from 66% to 112% of the average Chinese secondary school tuition fee. Assignees from some European countries may also benefit from home country government subsidies – French and German curriculum schools are often the cheapest international schools in a location for this reason. For example, the Lycee Francais and Deutsche Schule in Shanghai only charge 54% and 56% of the average China secondary school tuition fee respectively.

There are also some locations where the international school market is still relatively undeveloped and tuition is cheap. The lowest ranked country in our 2016/17 survey was Burundi, with average tuition fees for secondary education of only USD 3 210 per annum, which is just 17% of the global mean. Other countries where international education costs are low include island nations such as the Seychelles and Vanuatu, where expat populations are relatively small and the schools are of lower quality.

Additional costs and considerations

It’s not only tuition fees that schools increase annually. Companies should also expect increases in application fees, registration fees, building levies, uniform costs and many other charges that international schools often levy. These can contribute significantly to the overall cost of providing education as an assignment benefit, depending on the extent to which they are included in a company’s policy.

Percentage of companies covering additional education costs

In some countries, it may be possible to reduce costs by educating children at a non-fee-paying state school. In our last Benefits for International Assignments Survey, we found that 40% of employers encourage their assignees to send their children to local state schools if they are of comparable standard to those in the assignee’s home country (a figure we expect to increase when we run the survey again later this year). This is only possible in certain situations, for example if the same language is being spoken in home and host, e.g. South American assignees in Spain, and if the host location is in a developed country with excellent state schools. Caution is required, however, as international students may be charged to use state schools which are free to local nationals, as is the case in some parts of Australia, New Zealand and Canada.


As most companies contribute to the cost of education for employees’ dependent children while they are on international assignment, global mobility professionals need to be aware of the significant costs associated with international education, including the inevitable annual increases applied, and budget accordingly.


ECA’s Benefits Reports contain listings of tuition and other fees for international schools in 161 countries, so you can budget fully for this important assignee benefit. ECA conducted research on 2,655 schools around the world during 2016/17 to bring ECA subscribers the latest figures.

Our detailed and extensive benefits data is also available to use pre-loaded in our assignment cost projections, which can be purchased on demand or through our Assignment Management System, ECAEnterprise.

  Please contact us to speak to a member of our team directly.

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