Hong Kong schools must stop squeezing parents for every last cent

Kelly Yang says pricing out the middle-class with exorbitant fee hikes will only render schools and the city poorer in the long run

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 September, 2016, 12:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 September, 2016, 6:40pm

All around Hong Kong, families are feeling the squeeze. Salaries are stagnant – yet school tuition fees just keep growing.

I’m all for paying for quality education. But when kindergartens are increasing their fees by 50 per cent and some are now charging nearly HK$200,000 a year, it begs the question: are we nuts?

A lot of people assume that, when it comes to education, the more expensive the better. They’re wrong. Education is not a consistent commodity. It changes depending on a range of variables, like who’s delivering the product (that is, the teachers) and who’s receiving the product (students).

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When you jack up the price, your whole product changes because, suddenly, some students are getting priced out – more often than not good students, but also important students; the kind who add to a school’s socio-economic diversity, who bring interesting experiences and insights to enlighten other students.

Education is not a luxury. It’s a basic right

Also, an increase in tuition fees doesn’t necessarily mean teachers get paid more. Often, that money goes into marketing and branding, which at some schools, I dare say, rivals that of a luxury goods brand.

Education is not a luxury. It’s a basic right. It’s a tool for social mobility and a way to level the playing field. And just because parents prioritise their children’s education doesn’t make it right for schools to squeeze them for every cent. As parents, we work hard for our money. We love our kids and don’t want to move them from school to school. Switching schools can cause emotional stress and educational disturbance.

Thus, when it comes to education, most parents are path dependent. And that makes it hard for them to fight back against outrageous price increases. This is why schools have a special obligation to be up front with parents and tell them roughly the percentage fee increase they can expect each year. If they stray from this, they should be held accountable.

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While it’s easy in a free market like Hong Kong to chalk up everything to supply and demand, with education, the ripple effects are massive. If these sort of dramatic price rises continue, middle-class families are going to get priced out, especially those without the language skills to support their children in the local school system. If middle-class families get priced out of Hong Kong entirely, the city as a whole will suffer and that will eventually hurt the schools.

For Hong Kong to maintain its position as a world-class city, it must fiercely protect its ability to provide high-quality, affordable education. Schools need to take their eyeballs off their treasury and focus on the children.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debating in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School. www.kellyyang.edu.hk