ESF debate should set the ball rolling
The stage is set today for a debate in the Legislative Council that is long overdue. At stake is the future of the English Schools Foundation, whether it should continue to receive government funding and, if so, at what level. Legco's education panel is to discuss a report from the Education Bureau after talks with the ESF on the future of its HK$283 million annual subvention. The bureau's discussion paper treats the subsidy as a historical anomaly that needs to be resolved, perhaps by phasing it out while strictly overseeing the way it is spent. If that is what the government is tempted to do, it should think carefully about the implications.
Historically the ESF's role was to provide an affordable English-medium education for the children of British expatriates. It was subsidised like government schools and also permitted to charge fees. Nowadays more than 65 per cent of its students' parents are permanent residents and half its enrolment is ethnic Chinese. Its schools are therefore more like the international schools, which receive no recurrent government funding. The schools' fees are a stretch for many but remain more affordable than most international schools.
The government has frozen the subsidy for more than a decade, following an economic downturn and a damning audit report on the ESF's administration and financial management. Now that necessary reforms are in place pressure has been building from parents for it to be raised to give some relief from fee increases, amounting to 30 per cent in the last five years or 34 per cent with the latest proposed increase. The ESF has also introduced a HK$25,000 refundable capital levy.
The bureau says the ESF's unique role has to be justified to forestall claims for similar government assistance from other private international schools. In those terms the ESF has a case to answer and argues that it needs the subsidy to continue providing an affordable English-language education for children of people who have decided to make Hong Kong their home. Equally, however, the government has some questions to answer in terms of its own vision of Hong Kong's future as an international financial and services hub. There is anecdotal evidence that a shortage of international school places is discouraging talent from settling in the city. If the subsidy were withdrawn the ESF says it would have to raise fees for its students by HK$20,000 to HK$30,000. That would certainly open up more places by forcing some parents to withdraw their children. But would that be in Hong Kong's best interests, since they would include expatriates and returnees who contribute to Hong Kong's vibrant diversity and competitiveness?
The ESF debate should be the beginning of a broader discussion in which officials set out their thinking on how best to ensure equality of opportunity for all our city's schoolchildren.