Project fund 'used to dodge bidding process'
The Education Department has taken advantage of a fund supposedly meant to help schools develop innovative projects, according to the Audit Commission.
The report showed the department had applied for the Quality Education Fund to get grants of $269.7 million for improving information technology education, thereby getting around the process of bidding for money from the Government.
The commission also said 'excessive paperwork' had discouraged many schools from applying for the fund.
Established in 1998 and administered by a secretariat within the Education and Manpower Bureau, the fund allocates money to projects promoting quality education in schools. Up to August this year, the fund had approved $2.8 billion in grants, or $640,000 for each successful application.
A survey last year found 44 per cent of 2,171 schools polled had not applied, mainly due to excessive paperwork.
The commission said there was a lack of strategic planning to guide the fund's activities. Without an overall strategic plan, the commission warned the fund could become a source of supplementary funding for the Education Department. 'This would defeat the original objective of the [fund]', it said.
The Education Department was given $76.2 million in 1999 for a government scheme to provide information technology co-ordinators at 163 schools. The department received an extra $161.8 million from the fund last year to extend the scheme to a further 751 schools. 'Initially, the funding for the scheme for schools was made under the Government's annual budget process,' the report said.
Similarly, the department also got $31.7 million in 1999 to upgrade multi-media learning centres for 102 government-subvented secondary schools.
And up to the end of August, the fund approved 241 air-conditioning projects, costing an average of $261,052 each.
Democrat Cheung Man-kwong, who represents the teaching profession in the legislature, accused the bureau of being lax in monitoring. 'The bureau knows well the objectives and financial situation of the fund. It should not have allowed funding to be given to the Education Department,' he said.
In reply, the bureau argued the fund was by its nature a source of 'seed money' to enable schools to embark on projects that would otherwise not be possible due to lack of funding. With the growing prevalence of information technology in education, using the fund to upgrade information technology facilities in schools was 'consistent with the objectives of the [fund]', according to the bureau.