Parents fight funding for loss-making ESF colleges

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 November, 2010, 12:00am

A parents' group fighting to freeze rising fees is questioning the English Schools Foundation over funding for its loss-making private independent colleges.

ESF Concerned Parents Group members say fees at schools which receive government subsidies rose by about 25 per cent in the past five years and wonder if they are indirectly footing the bill for non-subsidised Renaissance College and Discovery College.

ESF chief executive officer Heather Du Quesnay defends the funding, saying the investment is justified and the schools foundation needs a healthy reserve surplus. 'The accounts of ESF schools are quite separate from those of the PI [private independent] schools and there is no cross-subsidy,' she said.

Producing figures released by the ESF in meetings with parents, the parents' group said the ESF together with the government paid HK$300 million to build the two colleges 10 years ago but only HK$41 million was repaid up to last year.

It said ESF subsidised schools were 'indirectly but effectively subsidising' the colleges and funding the expansion of its private college network and a possible expansion into the mainland.

'The ESF paid out a large amount of money [for the two colleges] without any repayment schedule and no interest and they describe it as an investment,' Concerned Parents Group spokeswoman Ada Cheng said. 'As ESF parents, we are concerned that school fees have to rise so much because the money is going in another direction for something that has nothing to do with our children's education.

'We want to see a schedule to get that money back so much so that it can cover whatever is needed in the ESF subvented [subsidised] system, and so that school fees can be moderately adjusted to an acceptable level for all parents.'

Cheng said the difference between fees at regular ESF schools and the two colleges - which the group said were losing money because of 'less than ideal enrolment' - was too narrow. 'These parents knew their school was not subvented so they really have to pay for their education,' she said.

'I feel there is a hidden agenda. They [ESF management] have a grand plan for the development and expansion at the expense of parents. They have mentioned the possibility of [schools on] the mainland and I don't want to be a partner to that. All we want is a decent education for our children at an affordable price ... there is nothing to stop the ESF going outside of Hong Kong but please find the money from somewhere else, not from ESF funds, which is made up of 70 per cent of school fees.'

Cheng said the group would take its complaint over the funding of the two colleges to the Legislative Council or directly to Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, and urged the Audit Commission to conduct another investigation of ESF finances.

Responding to the points raised by the Concerned Parents Group, Du Quesnay said: 'The decision to apply to sponsor the PI schools was made about 10 years ago, but the bidding process itself and the construction of the schools took a long time.

'So Renaissance College has been open for only four and a half years and Discovery College for only three and a half. Each school started with just a few hundred children and they are both still building up their rolls, as planned. So, of course, they have not paid a great deal of the debt off yet. In fact, they have done pretty well to have paid over HK$40 million already.'

She said both schools were 'very popular and hugely oversubscribed' with applications for Year One, but they were never expected to be full by this stage.

Referring to the ESF profit, Du Quesnay said: 'ESF schools need to make a reasonable surplus to ensure that the whole organisation is viable. The surplus helps to pay for the replacement of our old buildings, which is vital to our future survival and success.'

She pointed out that for six years before 2004-2005, ESF fees were not increased but said: 'It is necessary to review fees and put them up by a reasonable amount to allow the organisation to operate efficiently. That is what the board has tried to do in the last few years.'

Fee fears

For six years before 2004-05, ESF fees were not increased

But in the past five years, fees at subsidised schools have gone up by: 25%