The case for more school subsidies
The review of the English Schools Foundation's financing has blown open an emotive debate as to whether Hong Kong, facing a huge budget deficit, should continue to subsidise British-style education during the post-colonial era.
Arguments have been put forward, not always based on facts, that the government should no longer foot the bill to educate the children of what many perceive to be wealthy expatriates. Instead, it should concentrate its resources where they are most needed, on local schools. It has also been argued that ESF schools are not only elitist but have contributed to declining English standards by segregating local and international children, and that they should be left to compete on an equal footing with private international schools.
Such arguments, and the threat hanging over their children's schools, have prompted a group of ESF parents to fight back. On the basis of their survey results released yesterday, they insist the majority are long-term residents rather than wealthy expatriates. Sixty per cent of those questioned said they would no longer be able to afford the fees if they were to increase significantly. The majority believe they have no alternative because their children lack the Chinese language skills to get places in the better local schools.
The debate raises questions about the principles that should underlie the funding of education and how best to meet the needs of non-Chinese-speaking children who, by law, have as much right to subsidised education as any other in Hong Kong.
It may help to clarify this debate if these schools are compared not with private international schools but those being set up under a similar funding model through the Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS). The government encourages aided schools to switch to this status to increase choice and quality of schooling. Like ESF schools, DSS schools receive subsidies equivalent to those in the aided sector, but charge top-up fees to buy increased quality - most notably smaller class sizes - and greater autonomy.
If ESF schools serve a purpose, to educate a group of children who cannot all be catered for in local schools because of language differences, it makes sense to retain them according to this model. But long waiting lists and the cost of ESF schooling mean there are still many non-Chinese-speaking children who cannot benefit from this education. Many local families also feel unfairly excluded from it.
Indeed, an argument could be made for other non-profit-making international schools to be eligible for government subsidies under the DSS model. Why should parents who send their children to non-ESF international schools have to pay full fees when the local schools cannot provide the kind of education their children need and the ESF schools do not have enough places for them?
Means-tested vouchers, which parents could use to help buy schooling of their choice, may be the answer and they should be included in the debate. A voucher scheme could widen the access to good-quality education in private, non-profit-making schools for those turned away by ESF and DSS schools. If ESF and DSS schools are as good as their teachers and supporters say they are, they would have nothing to fear from such new competition, which might even drive down top-up fees across the board.
Rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the government's budget deficit problem, what is needed is a review of provision of subsidised and non-subsidised schooling, and planning to best meet the needs of all children, regardless of ethnic background.