A Chinese investment group has acquired an ailing UK private university in a deal that marks yet another example of a mainland buyer sparing a British education business from bankruptcy.

China Education Group has signed an agreement with Richmond, The American International University in London that will “secure the long-term future of the university”. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Richmond, The American International University, the only UK university that awards both UK- and US-accredited degrees, had faced financial difficulties after its wealthy founder and benefactor, Sir Cyril Taylor, died in 2018 and froze out the university from his £200 million fortune, the majority of which was left to a charity. Taylor’s will left the university only a “virtually worthless” strip of land in New Jersey, according to The Times.

Richmond, The American International University had enacted its “teach-out” plan, an arrangement whereby an institution that is set to close ensures its students can complete their studies.

Its acquisition by China Education Group is the latest link in a chain of recent transactions that have seen China-based investment firms absorb cash-strapped education businesses in the UK. In February, Chinese investors acquired Wisbech Grammar School in Cambridge. After crashing into administration five years ago, St Bees School, one of Britain’s oldest boarding schools, reopened in 2018 after being financially resuscitated by Shenzhen-headquartered Full Circle, which also owns a handful of UK language schools. 

China Education Group owns a portfolio of universities, which includes nine institutions in China and King’s Own Institute in Australia. This academic year, the firm enrolled around 180,000 students.

China Education Group’s acquisition of Richmond, The American International University will widen access to exchange programmes and internships and make the latter’s degrees more accessible to students in other parts of the world, the firm said.

The deal will afford Richmond, The American International University a “greater reach in international marketing and recruitment”, China Education Group said – suggesting it will seek to bolster its coffers by enrolling higher numbers of international students, who typically pay higher fees to study abroad.

But the transaction has been announced amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which has prompted governments worldwide to introduce international travel bans that have prevented students from dozens of countries, including China, from returning to their overseas studies. The UK higher education sector has voiced concerns about a potential multibillion-pound black hole in universities’ balance sheets come September, should international students be unable to enrol.

Founded in 1972 by Taylor, an education pioneer and ex-advisor to former British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, Richmond, The American International University is one of the UK’s oldest private universities.

It will continue as a self-governing non-profit organisation, according to a statement. 

Date published: 1 April 2020

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