ESF debate boils down to what's fair

Mike Rowse says city must ensure equal access to education for its own

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 5:44pm

Education Minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim is coming close to a decision on the English Schools Foundation subvention. It is always a good thing when a minister is prepared to make a decision. Unfortunately, it seems that, in this case, Ng is on the verge of making the wrong one.

How can we help him turn back from the precipice? It should be said that he may not have been helped by some of the arguments advanced in favour of the subvention. And I think we can assume that his colleagues in the bureau have been urging him to scrap it without presenting all sides of the argument. They, like their predecessors, hate all international schools in general and the ESF in particular.

Those in favour of the subvention continuing tend to put forward arguments along the lines of, "Hong Kong needs expats, there should be subsidised education for their children, the ESF has a long history of providing quality education, anyway many of the children are local."

All these points have some validity but they can be overstated. Moreover, they miss the main point.

Those who want to scrap the subvention take the line that, "the ESF schools are like international ones, we do not subsidise these, so we should not help the ESF with recurrent costs either".

Now, there was a time when the ESF enjoyed an unfair advantage in funding vis-à-vis local schools. In those days - several decades ago - the government covered the full costs of ESF schools but the classes were smaller and the facilities of a higher standard. That meant the subsidy per pupil was considerably greater.

This injustice was later corrected and the subsidy per place for ESF schools was fixed at the same as the cost of educating a local child in a local school. This was simple and fair, and meant parents had to pay the extra costs for smaller classes and better facilities.

But, about a decade ago, this formula was abandoned on the grounds of alleged mismanagement of ESF finances, and the subvention was frozen. The fact that the cost of this mismanagement, if any, was borne entirely by the parents through higher fees did not seem to have entered the argument.

That is where we are now. Proponents are saying the ESF finances have been sorted out, so the subvention should be increased accordingly, while opponents will not budge from their "international schools" argument.

This really comes down to fairness. The question that the community should be asking, the question Ng needs to ask himself, is: what is fair in all the circumstances?

All matters concerning education should start with what is best for the children. And matters concerning school fees should heave closely to what is fair for the parents.

Most children would do better to study in a local school predominantly in Cantonese but with some in an English-medium stream. The parents of most of those children are permanent residents, whether of Chinese or minority (including Caucasian) origin, and it is reasonable for all or most of the costs to be borne by the public purse, though a majority of the parents will probably not be taxpayers simply because most Hong Kong employees fall outside the tax net.

A significant number of children would do better to study in an international or ESF school in English and/or their mother tongue. Many of their parents are also permanent residents, and of both Chinese and minority origin, and a majority will be taxpayers.

So here is my question for Ng: what is the justification for not subsidising the cost of these children's education, at least to a level equivalent to the cost of educating a local child in a local school?

In matters of public policy, we are, or should be, concerned with what is fair. What is fair for the permanent resident parents of children studying in international and ESF schools?

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.