No justification for ESF debenture plan

Kelly Yang says there must be a good reason for the ESF to be selling school places, and improving its facilities doesn't cut it

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2012, 2:27am

Here is a question I often ask my students. Imagine you are the president of Harvard University and someone says he will donate US$50 million if you accept his son. Let's just say that his son is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But with US$50 million, you could give some 250 qualified, talented, low-income students a free ride. Would you do it? In other words, is it ever justified for a school to sell places?

My answer to this is a very cautious "yes". Granted, it goes against the principle of meritocracy for any school to sell places or in any way link admissions to monetary rewards; it is a dangerous move. So there needs to be a compelling reason for any school to tinker with that. Allowing lower-income students greater access to education opportunities in the form of a robust financial aid programme is such a reason. In other words, if you are going to let super rich people buy their way in, offset this by helping out more low-income students.

However, this is not what the English Schools Foundation is doing with its whopping HK$500,000 debentures. The money from the ESF's "nomination rights scheme", whereby families with enough money can buy priority for admissions, will be used to improve school facilities. School facilities are important, but they're not a good enough reason to increase the price of debentures tenfold.

The ESF is not the only school selling priority admissions for runaway prices. Major international schools such as the Hong Kong International School, the Independent Schools Foundation Academy and Harrow also sell them, and the prices often run into millions on the secondary market. However, ESF is not an international school. The entire point of the ESF, and the reason it receives government money, is to serve as an affordable alternative for English-speaking families in Hong Kong who cannot afford international schools and cannot support the Chinese required to thrive in most local schools. Many of these middle-class families already struggle to afford the ESF's increasing fees.

In addition, the ESF financial aid programme is arguably one of the weakest. It currently provides assistance to families who have encountered a "sudden and unexpected" change of financial circumstances. Thus, pupils are eligible for and may receive financial aid if a parent dies or if the pupil's family is on Comprehensive Social Security Assistance - and even that is for a limited time.

The ESF's HK$500,000 debentures threaten to further divide its schools and society. Selling debentures is akin to making a deal with the devil - if you're going to do it, you'd better make sure the deal is good. Improving a school's exterior is not enough justification; improving a school's financial aid system, and thereby patching up the giant hole debentures have torn in your school's meritocracy, is. I'd rather see HK$2 million debentures with 75 per cent of that money going towards financial aid than HK$500,000 debentures with 100 per cent going towards a nicer gym.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.