Hong Kong's school admission system in need of reform

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 11:57pm

Equilibrium arises when supply meets demand, so say the champions of free market economy. Unfortunately, the invisible hand does not always work effectively, especially when the market is heavily distorted by confusing information and factors beyond control. Kindergarten admission in Hong Kong is a case in point. The education chief insists that figures show there are sufficient places for everyone. But a teaching group disputes the data, saying the government is just playing down the shortage.

Nevertheless, thousands of parents camped out in the New Territories during the week. Armed with sleeping bags and cooking utensils, they lined up for days just to get an application form from their favourite kindergartens. It's unclear how many extra relatives signed up for the same child, adding to the frenzy. Tempers flared when mainland parents flooded in to vie with locals. It even became a money-making business, with touters offering slots in the queue for thousands of dollars. Clearly, there is something amiss.

Primary schools near the border have already experienced a similar crunch as a result of the rising demand from Hong Kong children born to mainland parents. The problem trickles down to kindergarten admission. That the government has done nothing is disappointing. This is partly because free public education has yet to be fully extended to the nursery level. It has been said that as long as kindergartens are still private, the government's hands are tied. Officials can only monitor and enhance transparency on supply and demand figures.

The pressure also arises from parents frantically signing up for several schools in a catch-all approach. There are also suggestions that locals should be given priority. But Hong Kong children born to mainland parents have the same right to education and other public services under the law. Shutting them out is not the solution.

The demand is likely to surge in the coming years when more children born in the year of the dragon go to school. The bottleneck can be avoided with better efforts from all sides. For instance, long queues can be replaced by online applications. A mechanism to assess in advance how many mainland children are to study here will also help. The government should also explore a centralised admission platform. This saves parents from queuing up at different kindergartens, stamps out touting and eases pressure on schools.