Lawmakers to ask ESF to justify fee increases

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 July, 2008, 12:00am

Legislators will call on the Education Bureau to attend a complaints hearing over fee increases at the English Schools Foundation, after parents accused officials of failing to monitor the issue adequately.

The Concerned ESF Parents group told an initial hearing of the Legislative Council's complaints division panel yesterday that the foundation's arguments for increasing fees were flawed and did not satisfy the bureau's five criteria for raising school fees. These are: how well the case can be justified, the benefits to students, sound financial planning, whether the school has engaged parents to solicit support and the availability of assistance for hardship cases.

The ESF announced in March that primary school fees would go up by 7 per cent to HK$58,100 and secondary school fees would rise by 5 per cent to HK$89,250 when the new school year begins next month. If approved by the Education Bureau, the increases would mean a total fee hike since 2005 of nearly 23 per cent for primary schools and 13.4 per cent for secondary schools.

ESF chiefs said the increases were needed to build up reserves for major infrastructure investments and cover pay increases to ensure that the foundation remained a competitive employer.

It has agreed to increase teachers' pay by 4.8 per cent and support staff salaries by 3.8 per cent in the coming school year.

Parents' group spokesman Albert Yeung said the ESF's reserves had increased from HK$474.7 million in 2004-05 to HK$558 million in 2006-07, while its 'cash pile' would grow - even without the proposed fee increases - from HK$101 million last year to HK$136 million next year.

He questioned why the ESF needed extra money from fees to fund staff pay rises, as the pay increases were smaller than the 10 per cent cut in ESF teachers' packages that had taken place over recent years.

'For the capital projects, the cash flow remains very healthy,' he said. 'There is no justification for the fee rises on the basis of the two reasons given by the ESF. In fact, a key question is 'Where is the money going?''

Mr Yeung said the consultation process over the fee increase had been 'a sham', with only seven parents present at the meeting of the Joint Council of Parent Teacher Associations in March, where fees and teachers' pay were discussed.

The ESF's practice over the past two years, of collecting school fees in advance, infringed Education Bureau Regulation 62, while its claim to have an exemption was based on the wrong regulation, he said.

'We do not consider the Education Bureau has exercised due diligence in monitoring the ESF on these important issues,' he said.

Legislator Howard Young, who chaired the meeting, said he would seek a full case conference with the bureau on the issue before July 19, when Legco begins its summer recess.

Cost of learning

Parents are concerned about ESF tuition hikes, such as primary school fee increases since 2005 amounting to 23%