The changing landscape of international education: It’s time to change our terminology
The changing landscape of international education: It’s time to change our terminology
The changing landscape of international education: It’s time to change our terminology
Jane Larsson Executive Director


By Jane Larsson, Executive Director, CIS


Many international schools today are owned and governed by citizens of the country where the school is based, established for the purpose of educating that country’s children. International schools serving expatriates are no longer in the majority.

Their regulatory environments are changing and more and more international schools are becoming legal entities regulated by the countries where they are based, no longer relying on embassy sponsorship alone.1

In light of this changing landscape, at CIS we have moved away from use of the terms ‘host country’ and ‘host country national’.2 These terms, in our opinion, are obsolete and can be dehumanizing for the people who are collectively referred to in this way. Using this language as part of the employment and visa sponsorship process for foreign hires at international schools creates a dual system for local hires (‘host country nationals’). While the legal sponsorship and associated employment needs for those hired internationally are distinct and will vary, this dual system has led to forms of inequity, such as different salary scales for local and international hires, which we are working actively to change.

The terms ‘host country national’ and ‘third country national’ were adopted by governments to create a hierarchy when working internationally. This terminology was broadly adopted by international school communities serving expatriates as they established categories of employees and contractors. Their purpose was to differentiate the citizens of the country where a school is based from the employees and contractors requiring visa sponsorship to work in that country as temporary residents.  

Another term that requires care in its use is ‘third country national’. (In a school context, an example might be a Kazakhstani teacher working in an American international school in a European country). This term can also dehumanize those who do not share the nationality of the person making the reference. People using these terms tend to see themselves in a primary position within an invisible order of validity or value, or they may be unaware of the implications of their use. Therein lies a hidden or assumed hierarchy when defining these terms and a resulting negative impact on others, even if unintended.

Action is now being taken in countries around the world to change their terminology, removing labels and categories which are perceived as dehumanizing. For example, in the USA: ‘resident alien’ is being replaced with ‘noncitizen’. This is a step in the right direction, referring to someone’s legal status in the country where they are residing and not their status in relation to that of another ‘higher level’ person or group.


1. Over the years, contributors have sought to categorise international schools (e.g. Leach, 1969; Sanderson, 1981; Ponisch, 1987), these have been criticised and contested. Instead, Hayden (2006) posits that it may be sensible to view ‘international school’ as an inclusive umbrella term to include different school types, a view adopted in this research. There has been significant growth in international schools since the turn of the century summarised in the table below (Stobie, 2016).

Year 2000

Year 2015

2,584 international schools educating fewer than 1 million students

7,545 international schools educating more than 4 million students

Scale of growth in international schools

It is relevant to understand what it means to be an international school as the sector has changed. The table below summarises the change which has been typical over the past thirty years. This is based on the work of Sylvester (2002), Hayden (2006), Brummitt & Keeling (2013), Sylvester (2015), Hayden & Thompson (2016) and Stobie (2016).



international school 

(Typical in 1990s)

New generation

international school 

(Typical by 2020)


Student population


Expatriate population, predominantly global nomadic students of mobile parents


Increasingly local population




Unique international culture



Culture embedded in local traditions




Mainly British, European, North American, and Australasian teachers


Increasing population of local teachers




International curriculum based on western pedagogy



Curriculum not necessarily grounded on western pedagogy and more sensitive to local context

Change in model of 'international school' over 30-year period



In an international firm, an HCN is a person whose nationality is the same as that of the country in which the company is operating: for example, a UK manager working for a UK-based subsidiary of a Japanese company. [See parent-country national and third-country national.]


Related content

More posts about terminology:


The changing landscape of international education: It’s time to change our terminology
  • Intercultural learning & leadership
The changing landscape of international education: It’s time to change our terminology