Education-funds audit finds waste

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 November, 2003, 12:00am

The Audit Commission has hit out at wastage in the education sector, citing thousands of unfilled school places, empty classrooms and aborted research projects - all at a time when educators are bracing for further budget cuts.

Despite the vacancies, the commission found the Education and Manpower Bureau was still spending $246 million a year buying 7,300 places from private schools.

In reports released yesterday, the watchdog called on the bureau to reduce the 20,300 surplus places in secondary classes - each costing around $36,000 a year - and the 145 vacant classrooms. If it did so, it would not need all the 34 new secondary schools due for completion by 2008, the commission said.

The surplus was equivalent to 23 standard schools of 30 classes, it noted.

The commission recommended the bureau review the performance of schools with large numbers of vacancies and, where appropriate, require them to improve.

Its report also criticised the bureau's planning for the new schools, citing factors including overprovision of places for pupils to repeat a school year.

The commission questioned investment in 36 government schools, which are more costly to run because staff are employed on civil service terms. Some of the schools were badly underused, it said - one was only 30 per cent full and another 46 per cent. One school received no applications for entry last year.

Education chief Arthur Li Kwok-cheung said some surplus places were needed to allow for fluctuating pupil numbers and to offer families 'choice and diversity'.

But legislator Cheung Man-kwong said the bureau should be reprimanded for building new schools despite the surplus places. 'The Audit Commission should also have recommended small-class teaching to improve the quality of education,'' he said.

The report revealed that 57 research projects awarded funding over the past three years were terminated without being completed, costing in excess of $9.2 million.

In addition, 71 per cent of the 651 research projects approved over the past four years had been granted extensions of up to 18 months.

But Michael Loy Ming-tak, dean of the school of science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said: 'Researchers need to be given freedom to do their work. No one knows what the chances for success will be at the beginning of a project.''