Precious wasted land: Hong Kong’s ‘ghost schools’ should be put to better use

More than 100 schools in the city are empty and they could be used to meet rising demand for elderly-care and health-care services

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2015, 10:19pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 November, 2015, 1:43am

The Director of Audit, the watchdog on efficient use of public resources, has castigated the government over abandoned schools that stand empty on precious unused land, and urged the Education Bureau to revisit its tracking and review mechanism for vacated premises. Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim says the government agrees improvements need to be made.

The auditor found that 105 of more than 200 vacant school premises remain empty with no plans for them, although a few have since been set aside for other educational purposes or involve private land-lease issues.

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The reasons for empty schools are well known – mainly an ageing population and also the rise of international schools to meet parents’ aspirations. But the existence of scores of “ghost schools” in a city struggling to find enough land for much-needed housing and other essential purposes does raise questions about how to make better use of them. These should be addressed with some urgency, subject to careful consideration of future education needs as the decline in enrolments bottoms out.

Utilising old schools for affordable housing is not a simple case of conversion. There are wider social planning questions to be considered. But, for some of them, it remains a valid urban renewal option that could yield thousands of flats in established areas.

If an ageing society is accumulating a stock of ghost schools with phantom students, it must be facing a proportionately greater need for elderly-care and health-care resources. A prediction that the number of Hong Kong people over 65 will rise from one million to 2.6 million by 2041 illustrates that. Many will need residential care or nursing.

It remains to be seen if a programme for elderly services due to be released next year addresses future needs. But there is no shortage of worthy alternative uses for surplus school sites – valuable public assets that ought to be put to work.