Unlike schools, expats can come and go
It's painful to read so much nonsense written and said about long queues at international schools. For once, on this very narrow issue - the supply of places at international schools - the government is correct.
According to a new census study, there are enough overall places; about 70 per cent of applicants waited six months or less to get a place, and the majority of primary foreign students will not stay long enough in Hong Kong to attend secondary school.
Obviously, competition is most intense for schools on Hong Kong Island; parents should look beyond the island. And Primary One classes are always full, because they have to take in many kindergarten graduates. Local parents who want to get their children into international schools usually start at this grade. There are usually openings in higher grades, and half-empty or small classes at secondary levels in less popular schools.
Still, why can't our rich government just lease out more land and build international schools? Because it doesn't work. Building more schools will attract more locals; like building roads would attract more cars. But the big picture is what I call the crisis economics of international schools. During the boom years of the 1990s, the expatriate population built up, until the handover in 1997 - soon followed by the Asian financial crisis - sent many away. They returned until the Sars outbreak in 2003, when they left again.
These two crises left many openings at English Schools Foundation and international schools for locals, who have stayed ever since. The present influx of expats, encouraged by the Western financial crisis and the China boom, creates a temporary supply problem. Many will leave when the next crisis hits. The expat population ebbs and flows. We can't blindly build more international schools when those resources could be redirected to improving local schools, the best of which can accept foreign students.