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  • Dec 27, 2014
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My Take
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 November, 2012, 2:45am

A competitive city or an easy touch?

Is Hong Kong's competitiveness really being eroded by the lack of international school places? This is the rallying cry that the international business chambers periodically sound when they demand more schools and places.

Lack of space prevented me from addressing this issue in yesterday's column when I argued for a single school system for locals and expats. Now let me tackle this issue head on.

Firstly, it's usually taken at face value that we don't have enough international school places. This is despite some 50 international schools already in operation and several new ones that are coming on stream over the next few years.

In the aggregate, it's not true we don't have enough places. What is true is that competition for places at primary level is much fiercer than for secondary. One reason is that many expat families leave before their children are old enough to enter secondary school.

But even at primary level, queuing could be eased if government bureaucrats relaxed funding rules, so more top-notch local direct-subsidy schools could admit foreign students.

What happens is that ambitious parents compete for the most prestigious international schools. The fierce competition for those select schools means parents apply to several at once, causing longer waiting lists. The lists are then used by the chambers as evidence of a lack of places!

The American Chamber of Commerce has reported that the shortage is most acute on Hong Kong Island. Well, try Kowloon or the New Territories!

But we need to make it easy for those super-talented expats, the chambers say. Or else they won't come and our economy will suffer! Just how easy exactly?

Perhaps the chambers can provide examples of major international firms that suffered personnel problems and had to relocate to another city because of a lack of school places.

A former English Schools Foundation official once told me how an HR officer at a top US investment bank complained that her boss from New York would not budge an inch unless a luxury flat and car, elite club memberships and schools for his children were all ready in Hong Kong.

That's a problem for the bank, not our taxpayers or the government.


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How should schools/gov't relax "funding rules, so more top-notch local direct-subsidy schools could admit foreign students." It's not an issue of funding - any child legally resident in HK can, in theory, be admitted to a top-notch DSS school. The issues are 1) These children do not have proficiency in Chinese to pass the admissions interview 2) Even if they do, the schools are scared of dealing with the unknown and considering the thousands of applications they get, it's safer for them to admit a Chinese child with parents who have Chinese skills 3) Even those parents prepared to trailblaze and venture into the somewhat unknown may lack confidence in the English teaching which is taught by non-native teachers very much as a second language. So the level and the approach (and the curriculum) is not that suitable for native and near-native English speaking children.
How many spaces in International Schools are being occupied by local Hong Kong students? Are there any statistics on the distribution?
I have a lot of friends, after migrated to Canada, Australia or USA, returned to HK for good. They sent their children to International Schools. Their children should have taken up a lot of spaces in International Schools, which are designated for "expats" whose children do not know any Chinese. While it is not easy to say that these born-in-HK "foreigners" are local, should only be accepted to International School with low priority. I see no reasons to spend money in International Schools for this sort of "foreigners" The money should have been spent to improve the quality of education in general.
We must recognize that a born-in-HK child, returning to Hong Kong from Canada, Australia or USA without formal Chinese language formation, is very difficult to integrate into the local school system. Therefore, international schools are the only choices for them. The world is not perfect.
Hong Kong is not competitive except for the high-priced bankers and MNC executives - and hot money - because of its prohibitive high costs from housing, schools to restaurants. One can easily see many young expats living in so-so housing not affording to send their kids to expensive international schools. Hong Kong already has more international schools than almost all other major cities - London, Tokyo etc. Improvement of education quality should be for ALL. Perhaps limiting enrollment of "locals" to international schools allowing more places for expats may be a short-term solution.


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