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Schools key to ending overseas study tour mess

Updated: 2013-07-19 09:16
By Bai Ping ( China Daily)

Schools key to ending overseas study tour mess


Profit-obsessed agents are turning visits into hectic tourist trips

For years, people have known that something's wrong with the Chinese obsession with overseas travel-cum-study courses for young students.

While parents lament the ever-increasing costs of sending their children to study in developed countries for a couple of weeks, educators doubt the value of a course that offers more whirlwind sightseeing than opportunities to learn. And social critics detest the "immersion" tours as a rich children's hobby and a symptom of a widening social divide.

But probably it's school principals who really know how bad the phenomenon has become because they have worked with tourism companies, including those that are not qualified to run summer or winter camps abroad, to turn the courses into a dodgy multibillion-dollar business.

As the nation mourns the deaths of two teenage students in the Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport on July 6, allegations of foul play against such collaboration schemes have also surfaced. They include the immersion tour organized by a middle school in Jiangshan, Zhejiang province, which was supposed to take the two girls, along with other students, on a tour of California and top US universities over two weeks at a cost of about $5,000 a person.

Not surprisingly, the school's partner for the tour is reported to be an unauthorized organizer of summer camps abroad. The organizer is yet to make public a breakdown of the expenses, leaving people to wonder why it had put the students on a cheap transit flight - from Shanghai to San Francisco via Seoul - despite charging steep prices.

Usually, following a widely accepted profit-sharing business model on providing immersion courses abroad, schools are responsible for recruiting students and finding foreign hosts, while tourism agencies reward schools with a commission for each student and bear the full costs for the accompanying teachers selected by the schools.

Given that the aim of many such joint ventures is only to make a profit, money is the only criteria for the selection of students. This is in stark contrast to how immersion courses are arranged in some foreign schools, which choose participants through interviews to determine their interests and provide financial assistance to students in need.

Despite the forbidding prices, campus marketing with teachers as promoters has proved effective and profitable because parents trust them and students value their teachers' attitudes toward them. Besides, both parents and students are under pressure not to lose face. In a competitive education system, parents would give an arm to ensure their children are not left behind, especially when it comes to an overseas course which is considered to be an early leg up.

When my son turned 4 this spring, we were invited by his kindergarten teacher to join a $5,000, eight-day study tour to the United Kingdom. According to the itinerary, my son would spend three mornings in the reception class of a school in England. But for the rest of the time, he and one of his parents would travel to Cambridge and London. While I pondered the wisdom of spending thousands of dollars on globalizing a young child's outlook, I was surprised to learn that applications had already closed because of the enthusiastic response from other parents.

But I am not alone in worrying about getting my money's worth. Accounts of horrifying experiences during immersion courses abound on the Internet, and schools and their partners are often blamed for poor preparation or cutting corners to maximize profits. Besides security concerns, one common complaint of parents is their children are whisked in a bus from one tourist spot to another, with minimal interaction with foreign students in classrooms.

Although the public wants the authorities to tighten the reins on chaotic immersion programs, the problem cannot be solved by cracking down on unauthorized tourism agencies alone. Ultimately, it's schools' responsibility to ensure that students really benefit from valuable learning and living experience in a foreign culture on immersion tours. And that should include placing students' interests above everything else and living up to people's trust.

The author is editor-at-large of China Daily.