Introduce a voucher system to settle the ESF funding debate

Allow schools to offer their own curriculum but give each permanent resident child a stipend to spend on an education of their choice

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 5:45pm

The Hong Kong government's education funding policy is in a mess. It's time to tear it up and start again.

Yesterday Secretary of Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim wrote to the South China Morning Post to set out his position on government subsidies to the English Schools Foundation. In a nutshell, he argued that: "ESF schools offer a non-local curriculum. It is not our established policy to provide recurrent subvention to schools offering a non-local curriculum." Therefore "the existing recurrent subvention will be phased out".

This line of reasoning betrays some severely muddled thinking.

The subsidy paid to the ESF works out at around HK$21,000 per pupil per year. If it were to be withdrawn with the foundation becoming a purely private sector organisation, the ESF would have a powerful incentive to jack up its fees to fund investment in better facilities. In turn better facilities would allow it further to increase its fees in a continuous upward spiral.

In the short term that would mean a 40 per cent increase in fees to bring the ESF into line with other private institutions like the Australian International School or the English stream of the French International School.

It would also mean a sharp rise in capital levies and a proliferation of non-refundable up-front debentures. Many families would be unable to afford the extra costs, and would be forced to withdraw their children. Given that some 70 per cent of ESF pupils are permanent residents, largely of local descent, many would be placed in the local school system, where they would cost the government twice as much in subsidies as they do now in the ESF.

That would be a bad bargain for the public purse. However, Ng clearly believes there is something inherently wrong or undesirable about providing government subsidies to schools offering international curricula.

This seems a strange attitude. A government whose very foundation is the doctrine of "One country, two systems" can hardly oppose the idea of "One city, multiple school systems".

Forget that the government already subsidises private international schools through generous grants of free land.

What's really strange here is that the Hong Kong government feels it should be in the business of dictating school curricula in the first place.

Governments around the world have a lousy record when it comes to picking winners in business. It's hard to see why they should prove any more competent at deciding how children should learn their lessons, or what exams they should take.

On the contrary, it's easy to see why they would make a hash of the job. In a fast-changing world, any society is more likely to prosper if can draw upon a broad range of intellectual influences and a wide range of skills. That means encouraging diversity in education, not imposing uniformity.

One way both to iron out the glaring inconsistencies in funding and to promote this diversity would be to extend the voucher system that the government currently operates for kindergartens to the school system as a whole.

In essence, this would mean that the government subsidises pupils, rather than schools. Each permanent resident of school age would get an education voucher - say worth HK$40,000 a year for secondary students - which his or her parents could spend at a school offering the curriculum of their choice.

The government would still license schools, possibly providing capital assistance for new building works at some schools in return for a cap on fees. Other schools might choose to charge top-up fees from parents' incomes.

But as long as the schools met inspection standards, officials would no longer dictate the curricula they teach. Parental demand would take care of that.

Alas, I don't believe for a second any of this will ever happen. But it might just be one way to settle the perennial ESF funding debate.