On Campus

School for profit

A Vancouver company is cashing in on China's education gold rush

When Toby Chu visited IBM-Beijing for a 1995 sales call, he realized China was in trouble. Some of IBM’s top Chinese staffers couldn’t read a financial statement. Within a decade, Chu, president and CEO of the Vancouver-based CIBT School of Business and Technology, has made Beijing’s problem his biggest asset.

Check back soon for more private college coverage

China has already leapfrogged the U.S. in the manufacture of everything from steel to DVD players. The bigger challenge is pumping out skilled workers to fill the several million jobs the economic boom is creating. But the odds of getting into a state school are 60 to one, says Chu, 48. “You might as well play 6/49.” And so China’s untapped education market is considered the “Klondike” to educational prospectors — something Chu recognized when he first set up shop in 1995 with a Beijing business school. “I saw all that foreign investment going in,” he says. “But China wasn’t yet a capitalistic society. I thought: who’s going to manage the money?” CIBT set out to fill that vacuum. Enrolment has grown eightfold over the past six years, and since January, CIBT has acquired a campus a week, from Hangzhou to Huazhong. This week, it acquired its 44th location, with plans for a total of 300 across Asia by 2015.

The Paris-Sorbonne University opening soon in Abu Dhabi

Chu, the youngest of six, was born in Hong Kong, but immigrated to Canada at age 10. His parents, both doctors, worried that the former British colony would be annexed by China’s Maoist government; they decamped for Vancouver after the Cultural Revolution. Chu, who calls himself “David Oppenheimer Elementary’s first Asian-looking student,” started working at Salad King Ltd., a local food services company, after high school; by night, he studied business at Vancouver Community College. At 19, he was managing the Salad King plant — a position he left in 1986 to start an IT company. Ten years later he sold the start-up for $45 million to move into the global education industry.

CIBT outposts have since opened up in west-central China and the coastal cities, where a forecasted 250 million workers are expected to migrate in the coming decades. In keeping with earlier practices, CIBT still offers offshore MBAs and undergraduate business degrees. But its primary focus has shifted to basic, vocational programs. At roughly one-fifth North American prices, it’s training workers to staff everything from casinos to high-tech companies. CIBT targets “smaller” cities of five to 12 million people, offering a hybridized Sino-Western curriculum that includes base-level English-language training and, at the end, a Canadian diploma. It’s not Harvard, but at least it’s foreign; some Chinese consider this the ticket to a job with a multinational, Chu explains.

He isn’t alone in setting up post-secondary outposts overseas. Some are calling it the “educational gold rush,” as competing universities from the U.S., Britain and Australia rush into boom countries with limited postgraduate opportunities. From oil-rich Ras al Khaymah to Singapore, which hopes to become the “Boston of the East,” students are earning Western degrees, minus the visa hassles and the homesickness. At Education City, a 2,500-acre all-in-one campus near Doha, Qataris can study international relations at Georgetown University, petroleum engineering at Texas A&M, business at Carnegie Mellon and, starting this fall, journalism at Northwestern. Abu Dhabi will shortly open full-fledged branch campuses of NYU and the Sorbonne. And last week, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley announced a joint Saudi Arabian venture.

Canada’s been “slow to the game,” says Jim Fox, president of the Canadian Bureau for International Education. While London and Washington have poured billions into university programs abroad, Ottawa has done “nothing” — even compared to Japan, where Western universities once set up shop, says Sheryl Bond, an education expert with Queen’s University who has studied the internationalization of education for 35 years. Canada is missing a massive opportunity — to build profile and global relationships, she says. “We should be out there bragging and marketing ourselves. But there’s no money for it.”

But the exploding global education market, which in some places outpaces licensing and quality assurance regulations, is rife with stories of failed companies and fake degrees. And the cold, hard cash luring for-profit ventures like CIBT makes educators like Bond, who puts the pursuit of truth and enlightenment ahead of money, uncomfortable. Indeed, there is no ivy at CIBT’s teal, street-front headquarters on Vancouver’s west side. Chu, who has a white pocket square tucked into his jet-black suit, readily admits CIBT is run like a business. “We have a responsibility to our shareholders to make a profit. But we also contribute back to the society. We reinvest and grow the school to make it available to other people.” No matter what educators think of the model or the motive, CIBT, like British and American schools, is going where the resources are. It remains to be seen whether Canada’s public universities will follow.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.