ESF subsidies are not sacrosanct, says minister
A possible cut in subsidies to the English Schools Foundation (ESF) is still on the government's list of measures to reduce the budget deficit, Education Minister Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung said yesterday.
Despite a barrage of criticism over the plan - which was first floated last month and could see tuition fees rise by up to 40 per cent - Professor Li insisted 'nothing was sacrosanct' when it came to making savings.
Speaking at a policy address briefing, the education chief also said an increase in tuition fees for students from Form Four to tertiary level would be considered.
Both of Professor Li's suggestions were criticised by educators and parents yesterday, but he remained adamant that the Education and Manpower Bureau had to tackle the issue of ESF subsidies.
'We cannot be afraid simply because some people are speaking louder [against the proposal] . . . There is no point attacking us or even bringing it up as if it is sacrosanct,' Professor Li said.
He said 'a level playing field' needed to be achieved between ESF schools and other international schools, which were not subsidised by the government.
'I have said repeatedly that the ESF has been doing a very good job.
'But it has also been said that many other international schools in Hong Kong - all of which do not receive a single cent of government subsidies - are also doing an excellent job.
'We have to see whether it is fair for us to continue subsidising the ESF.'
The ESF, which has 16 schools offering an English curriculum to 11,500 students, has received $300 million from the government this year.
Its tuition fees are $47,300 for primary level and $78,600 for secondary level.
The ESF estimates that tuition fees will be pushed up by 40 per cent if government subsidies are scrapped.
Professor Li's defence of a possible subsidy cut came a day after Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa was questioned at a business lunch over whether the proposal was at odds with the aim of attracting foreign talent to work and live in Hong Kong, a point highlighted in the policy address.
John Bohan, the ESF's financial controller, said yesterday the foundation could not be equated with other international schools.
'The ESF has always been regarded as part of public provision since it was set up by the government in 1967,' he said.
'Various inquiries have since concluded that ESF students should continue to receive subsidies comparable to that received per student in [local schools].'
Mr Bohan added that ESF teachers' salaries were comparable to those in other top international schools in Hong Kong. 'The salaries are fixed to attract highly qualified and experienced teachers,' he said.
Jal Shroff, chairman of the ESF, said he had yet to discuss the proposal with the bureau.
Mick Haynes, chairman of the ESF's parent-teacher association, said the government needed to be reminded that many expatriates could not afford the much higher tuition fees charged by some other international schools.
Although the government would continue to support nine years of free education for children, Professor Li said it would consider the need to increase school fees for students from Form Four to tertiary level.
More cash may have to be poured back into student financial assistance schemes as a result.
But legislator Cheung Man-kwong, who is also president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union, said the proposal would put many families under financial pressure.