The Expansion of UWC

By Samuel Bellon
May 16th, February


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At the beginning of this school year, the student council organized a number of meetings to discuss among students and teachers various points that were to be brought up during the UWC Congress. One of the main issues was the expansion of the UWC movement. There were mainly two sides to this debate: people who support the way the schools are expanding and those who oppose it. The problem is not whether or not UWC should expand in the future years but how it’s expanding. Since 2014, five new schools have opened increasing the number of UWC schools to 17. UWC has opened at least one school every year since 2014. Out of these five, two were previous international schools. So far, there are no signs that this expansion will slow down in the coming years. By expanding at this rate, the UWC movement risks losing its values, becoming disunited and trading Kurt Hahn’s mission for growth.

We often talk about how some schools are “more UWC” than others, that AC has lost direction, that Li Po Chun is a fake UWC school and so on. At the UWC congress, UWCM’s committee struggled to be seen as a “legitimate” school by other students and members of the UWC community. This is one of the consequences of expanding too quickly in such a short period of time. The movement as a whole has spread itself to the point where it has become fragmented and disunited. There is a type of competition between the seventeen schools to strive to be the “best” school. Students from AC attack UWCM and UWCM students attack AC as being less “UWC”. Maybe these are unavoidable by-products of growing as a movement that are worth enduring for the sake of the potential students who might live the UWC experience in the new schools. This disunity could be avoided if the expansion was done in a different manner. Instead of having this ideal “UWC” concept to strive for, that no one can really explain except by repeating the mission statement, we should look back at the origins of the mission itself.

On an interview published on a previous issue of this newspaper, we discussed with Peter Howe about the current state of the UWC movement. He shared with us his experience of being a principal at this school during its first years as a UWC school and the challenges that came with it. One of these challenges was that, besides the name, this was not a UWC school and that the student body was unaware of how lucky they were of being part of UWC and the mission.  People confuse having a small number of schools with elitism, caution with inclusiveness and tradition with backwardness. I am not arguing for a small, inclusive group of fourteen permanent schools called UWC, but there is no sense in adding schools every year for the sake of expanding the movement if on the process, our values are diffused to the point where they become simply a logo, a world-map within two rings on the front of an international school.

Thirdly, expansion at this rate without carefulness may cause the movement to lose the clear vision on its principal values and ideals. I don’t argue that growth should permanently stop or add one school every decade. However, at this speed the UWC movement risks losing control of the schools around the world since by increasing the number of schools, there is an increase in how complex it becomes running the schools. This may seem like unnecessary worry, but it stems out of respect for Kurt Hahn and what he stood for. We don’t live in the same times as when he lived anymore, and the circumstances have changed as well, and accordingly UWC should adapt to the world, but if it does, it should have a clear direction of where to go and maintain a firm position regarding its mission, values and identity. This is why communication between schools and within our community is important.

The aim of this article is not to pinpoint who is to blame for this or criticize the leadership of the movement. I hope it encourages future debates about the direction UWC should take and encourages dialogue with other schools as well. As part of the seventeen UWC schools in the world, we have a right to take part in the decisions that the UWC leadership team takes and express our position. Before we are able to do this, we need to discuss this in campus to create a clear voice in the UWC community. Through debates, conversation and platforms such as this newspaper we can express our voice effectively and create a firm position on this and other issues.

The expansion of UWC should be done carefully so as to guarantee that new schools are not simply international schools with a logo.  Platforms such as United Words, and the UWC Congress should be promoted in order to increase dialogue within the schools, to avoid rumours about the flaws of some schools, to increase unity and become a firmer student voice. Hopefully, through these platforms, the direction of UWC in the future becomes clear.